NPC/99/03/B: Strategic Issues for Scottish Higher Education

by Jeremy Hoad

Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (SHEFC) 06/98

As the representative body for postgraduate students in the United Kingdom we were disappointed to be excluded from the list of organisations consulted. However, we make the following comments which address the issues raised in Section Two of the consultation paper. We will be submitting a separate response to the consultation paper Funding for the Future.

Priorities and Ranking

We do not believe that it is helpful to rank the priorities for further consultation from the options suggested. It is not clear how these twelve areas have been determined and we are concerned that the process of future consultation will be affected by the way this material has been presented. We will therefore suggest the four priorities as requested but also note other issues which are not highlighted explicitly in the consultation document.

The four priorities proposed by the NPC are:

Teaching and Learning

1BResponding to the market for lifelong, distance and flexible learning

2AEnsuring and demonstrating that quality and standards of teaching provision are globally competitive

Economic, social and cultural benefits

3EHelping to combat social exclusion and meet the needs of the economy by widening access to higher education

Research

4JDeveloping and enhancing excellent research capacity

Funding

We believe that it is essential that higher education becomes more flexible and seeks actively to attract people from all social and cultural groups. Of particular concern to us is the impact that the introduction of student loans and tuition fees will have on future participation levels in postgraduate work. Undergraduate students now have large debts when they finish and the prospect of postgraduate work is made unnecessarily unattractive by the lack of access to suitable forms of student support.

The NPC believes that all postgraduates should have access to student loans to facilitate all those with the ability and aptitude to pursue postgraduate level work.

It will be extremely hard for institutions to attract students if the current situation remains where the funds available are extremely limited. There are a small number of funding council scholarships, institutional bursaries, corporate sponsorship and career development loans (which have an extremely limited application and are effectively commercial loans) available at the moment. However, the vast majority of postgraduate students commit considerable personal resources to their study.

We believe that SHEFC should stand against this erosion of access to postgraduate courses and explore ways of funding postgraduate work which recognises the considerable financial burdens now placed on students.

Fees

The NPC believes that SHEFC should collate statistics on the costs of postgraduate courses.

There is no standard fee applied for postgraduate courses and it is very difficult for potential postgraduates to find out exactly what their costs will be and compare between institutions. What we find extremely worrying is the practice of increasing postgraduate fees to levels which make many courses prohibitively expensive. We accept that there has always been variety in the levels of fees for different postgraduate courses. However, if institutions are to attract the best students and provide the greatest benefit to both individuals and society, the way that these fees are set needs urgent attention. In collating this information SHEFC should pay careful attention to the full cost of courses. It is not uncommon for the fees quoted for postgraduate study to be increased significantly by "departmental research costs", "bench fees" and other additional costs. Often these additional costs are not clear to students and it makes budgeting and costing very difficult for postgraduates who are under considerable financial pressure.

Staffing

The NPC is concerned about the levels of casualisation of staffing in the higher education sector. In the UK 41% of academic and related staff are on fixed term contracts including 94% of contract research staff. We do not believe that this situation is sustainable and that it is damaging to the long term recruitment and retention of high quality staff. The vast majority of academic staff will have undergone some form of postgraduate study and the insecurity and exploitation of these new staff members acts as a major disincentive to many postgraduates considering their career options as they reach the end of their study. Considerable recruitment problems could be caused by a combination of student debt, unattractive salaries in higher education and insecurity as a result of the considerable casualisation of staffing.

We therefore believe that SHEFC should be active in requiring institutions to justify the use of staff on fixed term contracts and assist institutions to improve their personnel management.

Teaching

Most institutions rely heavily on the work of postgraduates to provide their undergraduate teaching. Although the use of Graduate Teaching Assistants is becoming more common, with associated support and contracts, most postgraduates are employed on a casual, hourly basis.

We believe that SHEFC should give urgent attention to the employment of postgraduates in institutions and ensure that they receive full support and training.

The NPC believes that everyone who is involved in teaching should receive training and guidance and should be given a clear statement of their roles and responsibilities. It is unfair on the postgraduates who teach, the other staff members in the department and mostly to the undergraduates who are being taught by postgraduates to let the current situation remain.

Conclusion

This is an exciting time for higher education in Scotland with the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, the further expansion of higher education and the continued attractiveness of the Scottish education system which provides a high quality and broad education unmatched in the UK. The NPC urges SHEFC to be as inclusive as possible in its consultation process and ensure that institutions realistically address the issues raised. We hope that postgraduate students and issues of relevance to them are not marginalised in the consultation process due to the extensive nature of the proposed consultations. Postgraduates are in a crucial position for the future of higher education, being simultaneously students, providers of teaching, researchers and potential staff.

The NPC believes that in order to realistically address the issues facing higher education now and in the future specific and explicit attention must be given to postgraduates.