NPC/01/04/A: Welsh Assembly Investigation into Student Hardship and Funding

by James Groves

Executive Summary

It is our contention that the lack of significant public financial support for postgraduate students:

  1. denies equity of access to postgraduate education, particularly at masters level, so running contrary to the government's policy on lifelong learning; and
  2. leads to significant levels of hardship for many, if not most, of those who do enter postgraduate study.

We recommend:

  1. postgraduates not in receipt of research council studentships should have access to the Student Loans scheme;
  2. a trust fund should be established to provide postgraduate studentships to Welsh domiciled students from the poorest socioeconomic backgrounds;
  3. the University of Wales should review its postgraduate studentship scheme with a view to promoting access;
  4. the levels of access funds available to postgraduate students in Wales should be significantly increased;
  5. full-time postgraduates who suspend their studies, or who switch to a part-time mode of study, should be eligible to claim social security benefits;
  6. free crèche facilities should be introduced for students with childcare responsibilities;
  7. the National Assembly and the HEFCW should endeavour to limit postgraduate tuition fee inflation across Wales;
  8. the National Assembly and the HEFCW should endeavour to limit 'hidden course costs' such as charging for access to printing, photocopying and computing facilities;
  9. higher education institutions in Wales should have consistent policy on the 'writing-up' period of research study, which should be communicated to the DSS.

Preamble

The National Postgraduate Committee (NPC) is the representative body for postgraduate students in the UK. We organise meetings and conferences, publish best practice guidelines and seek to influence public policy on all aspects of postgraduate education. Our membership consists of affiliated students' unions from across the UK; we have one full-time officer, the General Secretary, and fourteen voluntary officers. We work closely with the
National Union of Students and the lecturers' unions. In the light of the establishment of the National Assembly for Wales we have recently established a Welsh Subcommittee to specifically examine matters relating to Welsh postgraduate education.

The Strategic Importance of Postgraduate Education

This government aims to put lifelong learning at the heart of its agenda. In its 1999 White Paper 'An Education and Training Action Plan for Wales', the Education and Training Action Group for Wales, chaired by Peter Hain MP, stated:

"But the plain truth is that there is no dichotomy between developing the skills, appreciation and capacities necessary to become employable, and enabling people to acquire a broader knowledge and understanding of the world in all its variety. There is no divide between education and training properly understood: they merit parity of esteem, just as do knowledge, skills and understanding or vocational and academic qualification. We believe it is a mistake to assume that any one setting has a monopoly on getting this balance right whether it be training in the workplace; a sixth form; adult education; or an institution of further or higher education. Notions of what is best in Wales have to become a great deal more generous if we are to develop the capacities of the many, rather than just the few. And it is vital to recognise that Wales cannot succeed in the face of international economic trends by trading down to the cheapest labour rate. We do not say that an outstanding education and training system is the sole key to economic success, only that without it the prospects are deeply unfavourable. So we think it absolutely essential that employers are directly involved in specifying skills needs indeed in helping to describe a wider range of education and training needs and in ensuring they are met. The future has to be built on high quality, high value-added jobs in home-grown firms and the public services as well as in concerns established by inward investors. We will only succeed if we are the best. This means that individuals must be multi-capable. Moreover, the disproportionate number of our people who are economically inactive, or without the necessary skills and qualifications, or both, are not going to be equipped for this future unless we deliberately set out to help them become so."

(ETAG, 1999, chapter 1, paragraph 11)

Postgraduate education forms an increasingly important part of this agenda. It supplies a key part of many people's continuing professional development. It provides access, often via modular and/or part-time study, to professional and post-experience training, so underpinning our skills base. Professional employers are increasingly expecting graduates to possess higher degrees. Martin Harris, now Vice-Chancellor of the University of Manchester, said in his foreword to the 1996 HEFCE review of postgraduate education, which he chaired:

"I knew of course of the central importance of high quality postgraduate education to the creation of the ever more highly skilled workforce which is necessary if the United Kingdom is to flourish in an increasingly complex and competitive world. I knew too of the benefits which education at this level, now delivered in a multiplicity of ways, brings to individuals and, through them, to society as a whole. And I was already aware, in general terms, of the importance of postgraduate activity within the higher education sector. What I became steadily more impressed with as our work progressed was the strength, the vitality and the diversity of the provision available to postgraduate students within our universities and colleges today."

(Harris, 1996, chair's foreword)

It is not just postgraduate taught education that is valued in this way. The recent HEFCW research review consultation paper states that:

"Research training was recognised as one of the most important functions of the research base and trained researchers arguably as its most significant output."

(HEFCW, July 2000, paragraph 40)

The Numbers and Types of Welsh Domiciled Postgraduate Students

To give the Investigation Group an idea of the quantity and diversity of postgraduate education in Wales, here is a summary of the numbers of Welsh domiciled postgraduate students during 1998/1999 (the most recent year for which figures are available):

Table 1

(HEFCW, August 2000, table 1)

The figures show that the clear majority of postgraduate taught students are part-time, while most postgraduate research students are full-time. Postgraduate taught students outnumber postgraduate research students by more than 3:1. The majority of Welsh domiciled postgraduates, particularly at taught level, choose to study in Wales.

The Lack of Financial Support Available to Postgraduates

Recent public debate on student financial support has focused, inevitably, on undergraduate education in particular, on the abolition of the maintenance grant and the introduction of a student contribution to undergraduate tuition fees.

We must remember, though, that postgraduates unless they are among the lucky few in receipt of studentships have never been entitled to a maintenance grant, and have always been expected to pay their own fees. This is a daunting prospect, particularly as the Student Loans Scheme is not open to postgraduates, and many prospective students simply cannot afford this.

Those particularly disadvantaged from enrolling on a postgraduate course include:

  1. those with family or childcare commitments;
  2. those who have recently completed undergraduate study and carry several thousand pounds of accumulated student debt;
  3. those who are not currently employed and are seeking to undertake postgraduate education with a view to improve their skills or employability.

Some students are able to take out Career Development Loans from banks, but these are limited in number, oriented strongly towards courses with direct vocational applications and have very unfriendly, some would say intimidating, terms and rates of interest.

Studentships are available, of course. The principal source is the government's research councils, which offer studentships at both masters and research level. These are very generous, compared with the support packages available to undergraduates, but are very few and far between, especially at masters level. Recent strategy documents indicate that research councils will increasingly be focusing their funding at research students, and students undertaking taught postgraduate courses with a view to progressing as research students.

Other sources of studentships include universities, employers and charitable trusts. Numbers are usually extremely limited. In the words of one current research student in Wales:

"...my only hope of funding was from the University ... because I was not awarded a full studentship I have spoken to the Graduate School on a number of occasions in the hope of being awarded something just to help me out, particularly because not all funds were allocated last year, but I have been unsuccessful. This has meant that I have had to find various jobs to support myself. A lack of transport and the fact that I want to study as much as possible during the day has meant that jobs are limited, and so I currently work for a company on campus which until very recently paid me £3.20 per hour (this has now gone up to £3.70), but this is barely enough to cover food and household bills."

Because of the lack of studentships, and the lack of credit on reasonable terms (such as the Student Loans Scheme), access to postgraduate education remains very limited for those without significant savings. The NPC believes this limits the scope for expanding and diversifying the postgraduate sector, contrary to both institutions' and government's wishes. According to a second Welsh research student:

"Our department is about to go into the next RAE not having been able to increase their PG numbers since the last RAE this is the sole area of research in which we have been unable to expand. This is for a variety of reasons but mainly due to the lack of funded places. Even with funding available it is increasingly difficult to persuade good graduates to turn down a graduate job pulling in 17k in order to get paid 5-6k per year for working twice as hard and then have limited job prospects at the end of the three years."

We recommend:

  1. postgraduates not in receipt of research council studentships should have access to the Student Loans scheme;
  2. a trust fund should be established to provide postgraduate studentships to Welsh domiciled students from the poorest socioeconomic backgrounds;
  3. the University of Wales should review its postgraduate studentship scheme with a view to promoting access.

The Lack of Entitlement to Benefits

Like other full-time students, full-time postgraduates are not eligible to claim social security benefits. It is the settled view of the DSS that this should remain so.

Two areas, however, where we believe the DSS should think again regarding students' benefit entitlements are:

  1. the fact that full-time students who suspend their studies, for whatever reason, are still viewed as full-time students by the DSS and so are not entitled to claim any benefits;
  2. the fact that full-time students who change their mode of study, from full-time to part-time, are still viewed as full-time students by the DSS and so are not entitled to claim any benefits.

Students in such a situation, who are in financial hardship, are faced with an invidious choice abandon your course, or face destitution. We do not believe this is equitable. Our view was echoed in relation to point (ii) above by the government's Social Security Advisory Committee, who commented in 1998 that:

"The proposals reinforce a policy which causes hardship, affects the least well-off students most severely and leads to the abandonment of courses and is thus contrary to the government's policy on higher education."

(SSAC, 1998, paragraph 53)

The DSS did not agree. Their preferred means of dealing with student hardship is via discretionary awards and access funds. We agree that these are crucially important, but believe the amounts available need to be substantially increased before they have a significant effect. In the words of a current postgraduate in Wales:

"With regards to the University access fund I have only recently been told of it, and so I am in the process of filling in the form, but to be honest I would have to be awarded the maximum available (£3500) for it to really help me and ... give me more research time."

Some of the students most adversely affected are those with childcare responsibilities. It is a disgrace that caring responsibilities should act as a deterrent to study, and we believe a radical injection of resources is needed to secure free crèche facilities for such students.

We recommend:

  1. the levels of access funds available to postgraduate students in Wales should be significantly increased;
  2. full-time postgraduates who suspend their studies, or who switch to a part-time mode of study, should be eligible to claim social security benefits;
  3. free crèche facilities should be introduced for students with childcare responsibilities.

Postgraduate Fees and Course Costs

Unlike at undergraduate level, the government does not cap postgraduate fees for home students. All Welsh higher education institutions set the majority of their home postgraduate fees at the same level, this being the maximum amount the research councils will pay in respect of their funded students (£2805 next year).

However, there is a worrying trend in some institutions towards levying premium fees for certain high-demand courses, where a market rate can be charged. For example, a home student enrolling on the MSc in Marine Policy
at Cardiff for 2001/2002 will be expected to pay £4305. We do not believe this promotes access, and are of the view that the National Assembly and the HEFCW need to lay down a policy framework on postgraduate fees as a matter of urgency.

As well as explicit tuition fees, institutions are increasingly charging so-called 'hidden course costs'. In the words of a current student:

"At the moment students have to buy their own software and textbooks, and have to rely on travelling to other places for software training and related software conferences ..."

In situations where some funding is available to provide students with facilities and grants, the levels of provision often differ radically and students are often not made aware of what they are entitled to. According to another student:

"One of the biggest sources of confusion and upset amongst our postgraduate community comes from the different levels of support offered by the various sources of funding. I was funded by a University of Wales studentship but didn't find out until my second year (and then totally by accident) that this studentship has funding for conferences and fieldwork attached to it. For the three years I was funded I was never entirely sure what money I had access to and worked on a policy of 'ask and see what happens' ... The research council funded students all have a sum of money attached to their bursaries specifically for expenses (fieldwork etc.) but the amounts and what they can be used for is frequently not made clear to the PGs and the entire system seems to operate on a 'need to know basis'."

We recommend:

  1. the National Assembly and the HEFCW should endeavour to limit postgraduate tuition fee inflation across Wales;
  2. the National Assembly and the HEFCW should endeavour to limit 'hidden course costs' such as charging for access to printing, photocopying and computing facilities.

The 'Writing Up' Period of Research Study

Nothing leads to hardship for research students more than the pressures they often endure when writing up their thesis. In the words of a fourth year research student:

"My department also has really bad completion rates. This is not helped by the fact that the vast majority of us have to find work whilst we are writing up. In most cases this means a postdoc, but whatever the work it is very difficult to write up whilst employed. I am in my fourth year and hope to submit my PhD in the summer. In January of this year I was forced, through a lack of money, to take on a job with an environmental consultancy; I stayed for three months and left two weeks ago. The only reason I took this job was money and taking it has put my completion date back by at least six months. The nature of PhD work is such that trying to get a few hours done in the evenings whilst holding down a full-time job is not an option. The work is mentally demanding and exhausting. It is for this reason that several of the people I know who have attempted to take on work whilst writing up have ended up taking an additional 2-3 years to complete."

Such delays are not in the interests of Welsh higher education institutions, as they receive financial penalties for poor PhD completion rates.

We believe there needs to be consistent policy throughout the Welsh higher education sector on the writing up period of research study and what forms of support and guidance should be in place to ensure that:

  • as few students as possible end up requiring a writing up year; and
  • in cases where students end up requiring a writing up year, adequate systems of support are in place to ensure they complete as soon as possible with the minimum level of hardship.

We hope that Welsh institutions do not follow the example of certain institutions in England who are now charging full fees for students during their writing up period. As well as being vindictive, such a move may well be counterproductive, as it would be likely to further delay students' submission dates. We are pleased to note that Cardiff, for example, at present has zero writing up fee.

The DSS at present has little or no coherent policy governing writing up students' entitlement to benefits. The majority of Benefit Agencies, unsurprisingly perhaps, do not know what writing up means - this can lead to confusion and misery. It would benefit both students and the DSS if the higher education sector in Wales could agree a consistent policy on the writing up period of study, and communicate this to the DSS.

We recommend:

  1. higher education institutions in Wales should have consistent policy on the 'writing-up' period of research study, which should be communicated to the DSS.

Conclusions

Our recommendations are ambitious; most have resource implications. However only a significant level of investment will truly promote access to postgraduate education in Wales, and a decent standard of living for those who do undertake postgraduate study.

Of our recommendations, we believe only (i) and (v) lie outwith the Assembly's competence. We have kept them in our submission because we believe they are of vital importance; we hope the Assembly will consider recommending them to Westminster.

References

  • Cubie, 1999 Andrew Cubie (convenor), Student finance: fairness for the future, Report of the independent committee of enquiry into student finance, Scottish Executive, 1999, www.studentfinance.org.uk
  • ETAG, 1999 Education and Training Action Group for Wales, An Education and Training Action Plan for Wales, Welsh Office, 1999, www.wales.gov.uk/subieducationtraining/content/guidance/etap/etag_e.pdf
  • Harris, 1996 Martin Harris (editor), Review of postgraduate education, Higher Education Funding Council for England, 1996, www.hefce.ac.uk/Pubs/HEFCE/1996/m14_96.htm
  • HEFCW, July 2000 Review of research policy and funding method: consultation document (circular W00/76HE), Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, July 2000, www.wfc.ac.uk/hefcw/circulars/w0076he/pdfs/w0076he.pdf
  • HEFCW, August 2000 Participation rates for Welsh students in Higher Education within the UK during 1998/9 (circular W00/108HE), Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, August 2000, www.wfc.ac.uk/hefcw/circulars/pdfs/w00108he.pdf
  • SSAC, 1998 Report of the Social Security Advisory Committee on the draft Social Security Amendment (Students) Regulations 1998, published in command paper Cm 4739, 'The Draft Social Security Amendment (Students) Regulations 2000', The Stationery Office, 2000