NPC/01/12/A: Scottish Executive Review of Higher Education - First Consultation Paper

The Scottish Executive

Scottish Higher Education Review

First consultation paper

Response by the National Postgraduate Committee

On behalf of the National Postgraduate Committee I am pleased to respond to the Scottish Executives first consultation paper on the Scottish Higher Education Review. This was discussed at length at a meeting of NPC Scotland, our Scottish Subcommittee, in Glasgow University Postgraduates Club on Saturday 27 October 2001. I hope you find our comments helpful.

James Groves
General Secretary
National Postgraduate Committee

14/12/01

Executive summary

SHEFC should have an explicit policy-led agenda to ensure HEIs are properly held to account for their use of public funds. SHEFC must take the lead in ensuring HEIs have effective quality assurance and access policies.

There should be a student member of Council. All Students Associations should be encouraged to attend SHEFC Open Meetings and take part in SHEFC consultation exercises.

SHEFC and SFEFC should remain separate bodies; the aims and outcomes of further education and higher education are essentially different. Higher education is not just about skills development; it has profound wider benefits to students and society.

One of the central issues the Scottish Executive must address, if it is to truly promote lifelong learning, is the overwhelming need for more money in higher education.

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 NPC has a Scottish Subcommittee, NPC Scotland, which focuses specifically on matters affecting postgraduates in Scotland. It has its own officers, all of which are current postgraduates in Scottish higher education institutions.

Our comments are collected under four headings, as suggested on page 11 of the first stage consultation document.

1) SHEFCs aims, objectives, targets and standards

SHEFC should have a more explicit policy-led agenda. This should be in line with SHEFCs statutory obligations and the Executives current priorities; however, SHEFC should also actively consult representative bodies and interested individuals within Scottish higher education when forming policy. Strong and coherent policy is vital, given that SHEFCs funding formulae and conditions of grant provide the principal means of holding HEIs to account for their use of public funds.

SHEFC must take the lead in ensuring effective and responsive quality assurance regimes are present in each HEI. Quality assurance should cover the transferable skills learned during study as well as academic learning outcomes. At postgraduate research level, quality assurance should cover effective systems of skills training (research and generic) as well as schemes for the training and appraisal of supervisors.

The likely demise of external quality audit at the subject level makes it all the more important that HEIs have adequate internal quality assurance procedures. The QAA Code of Practice should be seen as a minimal set of conditions; SHEFC should encourage institutions to engage in best practice. SHEFC funds could be used to:

  • allow HEIs to widen and expand the roles of external examiners, for example by increasing their remuneration;
  • ensure HEIs have the staff and resources to administer effective quality assurance procedures and disseminate the resulting information;
  • facilitate effective systems of student feedback, such as anonymous questionnaires and exit interviews.

SHEFC must also encourage access to higher education. We feel, however, that formulaic and postcode-based methods of allocating extra funds to promote access are crude and ineffective; they do not encourage HEIs to truly engage with the issue at policy level. We prefer HEIs to have holistic policies on widening participation and equal opportunities, and encourage SHEFC to lay down policy guidelines accordingly. Funds should be allocated to HEIs to assist them in implementing access policies; one of the functions of external quality assurance should be to evaluate the effectiveness of HEIs access policies.

2) SHEFCs governance, accountability, openness and responsiveness to stakeholders

There is a strong case for student representation within SHEFC. At the very least, there should be a student member of Council. This is not incompatible with SHEFCs status as a non-departmental public body; the Council already includes academics and members of HEI management as well as members from outside higher education. A student member of Council would, we believe, play a unique and valuable role; he/she would offer a consumers perspective on Scottish higher education and its place in public life. All Council members, including any student representatives, should continue to be appointed by the Scottish Executive following a nomination and selection procedure.

The practice of SHEFC Open Meetings is valuable and should continue. Students Associations should be actively encouraged to send representatives to these meetings and table questions.

Similarly, individual Students Associations should be encouraged to participate in SHEFCs consultation exercises it should not be assumed that each HEI will necessarily take students views into account when preparing submissions. National student bodies, such as the NUS and the NPC, should continue to be invited to participate in all SHEFC consultations.

SHEFCs website is excellent. Many organisations, including the NPC, use the internet as their principal means of obtaining information from public bodies; SHEFC should continue to prioritise the electronic dissemination of information accordingly.

3) Working in partnership

We feel strongly that SHEFC and SFEFC should remain separate bodies, albeit with a shared executive and secretariat. Policy for higher education and policy for further education should be formulated by different groups of individuals, operating under separate policy agendas.

Further education and higher education have essentially different aims and outcomes. Further education is principally concerned with vocational training and access to further study, as important ends in themselves. Higher education, while recognising the crucial role played by vocational training, is in essence a self-transformative activity concerned with the pursuit of knowledge, the acquisition of transferable skills and personal development. There are of course overlaps, such as CPD programmes at HE level, but the core philosophies are distinct. Merging SHEFC and SFEFC would unfairly denigrate the distinct role played by further education in Scotland it is more than just higher education at a lower attainment level.

We endorse partnerships with external funders, both public (notably the Research Councils and the Health Department) and private, provided these partnerships are in line with SHEFCs policies.

Annex 1 the context for higher education

The Scottish Executive must recognise the overwhelming need for more money in Scottish higher education. It is simply not viable to promote lifelong learning for all Scots without a significant increase in SHEFCs budget. Staff-student ratios have risen dramatically in recent years to the detriment of teaching quality as HEIs have tried to expand student numbers without adequate financial backing.

Although student financial support lies outside the remit of SHEFC, we feel we should comment that the overwhelming barriers to participation in postgraduate education are financial. Prospective postgraduate students in Scotland are often burdened by accumulated debt, albeit less than their contemporaries in England and Wales. The lack of any statutory loan (or grant) entitlement for postgraduates forces the majority to finance their studies via commercial loans; many will not, or cannot, countenance this.

We are pleased the consultation document recognises the wider benefits of a well-educated society, and does not focus narrowly on the acquisition of transferable skills. As we mentioned in our response to section 3, higher education is more than skills development; it is a profound transformative process for those who experience it. For this reason SHEFC and the Scottish Executive must ensure funds are made available to ensure the development of all subject disciplines, not just those that attract significant financial support from external funders.

In particular the arts and humanities deserve significantly more financial support than they receive at present. We hope the Scottish Executive will support any future proposals for the establishment of an Arts and Humanities Research Council.