NPC/01/05/A: The British Academy Graduate Studies Review

Executive Summary

Debt, both accumulated from undergraduate study and prospective for postgraduate study, is a significant deterrent to prospective postgraduates in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

The almost complete lack of financial support available to postgraduate students in the arts, humanities and social sciences is a deterrent to access and limits scope for expansion of postgraduate provision in these disciplines.

The advent of '1+3' funding may well increase access to postgraduate study for prospective full-time research students; it must be remembered, however, that many prospective postgraduates wish only to study for a masters degree, often as part of their continuing professional development or post-experience training, but also purely on grounds of subject interest, and adequate provision is needed for these students also.

The arts and humanities are significantly underfunded when compared with other subject areas; this underfunding is institutionalised through the government's failure to grant research council status to the Arts and Humanities Research Board. We believe an Arts and Humanities Research Council should be established as soon as is practically possible.

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.

The Culture of Debt Within Postgraduate Education

Our meeting of 18/2/01 was unanimously of the opinion that debt is a deterrent to postgraduate study. Not only do prospective postgraduate students often carry significant debt from their undergraduate education (made worse since the abolition of the maintenance grant), they face taking on a considerable debt in order to undertake a postgraduate course.

This opinion is borne out by the 2000/2001 Survey of Postgraduate Study Intentions (University of Sheffield/OST, 2000), carried out by the University of Sheffield on behalf of the Office of Science and Technology. For social science undergraduates who were considering applying for a postgraduate course, but were undecided as to whether they would in fact apply, the two most discouraging factors for them were the lack of available studentships and their current levels of debt. This is summarised in figure 4 of the OST's summary report of the survey.

The Lack of Financial Support Available to Postgraduates

We believe the numbers of postgraduate studentships in the arts, humanities and social sciences (the arts and humanities in particular) are unacceptably low. We recognise, of course, that there will always be more government funding for subjects more naturally allied to industry such as the natural sciences and engineering. However, the pitifully low numbers of AHRB and ESRC studentships available, particularly at masters level, is denying access to postgraduate study for all but the most gifted and the most able to financially support themselves.

There is little opportunity for prospective postgraduates in the arts, humanities and social sciences to take out loans to fund their study. Loans are, from the point of view of the prospective student, far from ideal, but they are preferable to nothing at all.

Career Development Loans are of no use to the majority of prospective students in the arts, humanities and social sciences, as with very few exceptions, a notable one being professional training in Law, these subjects are not seen by the banks administering this scheme as sufficiently vocational. We actually believe this view is shortsighted, as postgraduate courses in the arts, humanities and social sciences can have many vocational applications; we expand on this in our next section.

Postgraduates are not entitled to access the Student Loans Scheme we believe this is unjust. Access to student financial support (particularly when given in the form of a loan) should not depend on the nature of the course undertaken. We advocate that postgraduates not in receipt of research council or AHRB studentships should be granted eligibility to the Student Loans Scheme; this could significantly promote access to postgraduate education, particularly at masters level. Whilst the current values of Student Loans are far lower than we would wish, they are a substantial improvement on zero!

Three Distinct Aspects of a Masters Education

A postgraduate taught degree might usefully, in our view, perform any of three distinct rôles.

It can be a vital part of postgraduate research training for those wishing to progress to a PhD. The research councils and AHRB, understandably, are most interested in this aspect. The recent HEFCE research review consultation paper stated:

One of the principal outputs of the research base is a supply of trained researchers. These individuals may go on to pursue academic careers, but increasingly their skills and knowledge are valued by society more widely, and by industry in particular.
(HEFCE, 2000, paragraph 208)

The ESRC's recent decision to move towards '1+3' studentships (i.e. one year of taught postgraduate education, leading to a MA, followed by three years research, leading to a PhD) is in line with their intention to support masters education as a means to producing trained researchers, and reflects a retreat from supporting masters education as an end in itself. We understand the ESRC's reasons for endorsing the '1+3' system a research council should, after all, principally be sponsoring research and training prospective researchers but feel it is important that students undertaking postgraduate taught courses for other reasons should not be neglected in terms of the support offered to them.

Secondly, postgraduate taught degrees can be a vital means of delivering post-experience training, CPD and/or skills development, often via modular and/or part-time study. Within postgraduate taught education, this area has expanded most in recent years; it also fits in most strongly with the government's declared agenda for lifelong learning. The DfEE's 1999 white paper, 'Learning to Succeed', states:

"All adults need the opportunity to continue to learn throughout their working life, to bring their qualifications up to date and, where necessary, to train for a different job. Now and in the future, employability is and will be the best guarantee of employment. Learning also brings broader benefits. It encourages and supports active citizenship, helps communities help themselves, and opens up new opportunities such as the chance to explore art, music and literature. It helps strengthen families and encourages independence. That means that everyone must have access to high quality, relevant learning at a time and pace, and in places that suit them. Not only do individuals, families and communities benefit, learning throughout life also delivers tangible results for business improved productivity and competitiveness."

(DfEE, 1999, clause 7.1)

The lifelong learning agenda can be as relevant within the arts, humanities and social sciences as in other disciplines; there are applications to public policy research, regional studies, management, culture and the media for example. Unfortunately, the lack of financial support available to prospective postgraduates in the arts, humanities and social sciences is limiting this lifelong learning agenda, and removing much of the scope for further expansion and development of UK postgraduate education in these disciplines.

Finally, a postgraduate taught degree can simply be undertaken for pleasure and interest, often on a part-time basis. We strongly feel that those who undertake postgraduate study for this reason should not be neglected.

The Need for an Arts and Humanities Research Council

The advent of the Arts and Humanities Research Board was a major step forward for the arts and humanities in the UK. For too long, the arts and humanities have been the poor relations (literally) of other subject disciplines.

We believe the AHRB has fulfilled its remit admirably, given the funding opportunities open to it, and feel it is now time to establish an Arts and Humanities Research Council, as advocated in the Dearing report and looked on favourably in the funding councils' recent reviews of research. The establishment of an AHRC would finally enable the arts and humanities to compete for funding on an even footing with other disciplines.

References

  • HEFCE, 2000 Review of research: consultation document (report 00/37), HEFCE, 2000, www.hefce.ac.uk/Research/default.htm
  • DfEE, 1999 Learning to Succeed: a new framework for post-16 learning, DfEE white paper, published as command paper Cm 4392, www.dfee.gov.uk/post16/pu_whiteindex.shtml
  • University of Sheffield/OST, 2000 Survey of postgraduate study intentions 2000/2001, University of Sheffield on behalf of the Office of Science and Technology (Dr Marcus Phillips, principal author), 2000, www.sheffield.ac.uk/~gradsch/OSTsurvey.html