The Arts & Humanities Research Board

Review of the AHRB Postgraduate Programme
and proposals for changes to AHRB provision
of postgraduate study and training

Response by the National Postgraduate Committee

On behalf of the National Postgraduate Committee I am pleased to respond to the AHRBs consultation document on its postgraduate review. The document was debated at length in an NPC policy workshop held in Cranfield University on 24 February 2002; it was also discussed at a meeting of NPC Scotland held in the University of Stirling on 9 March 2002 and a meeting of NPC Wales held in the University of Wales, Cardiff on 16 March 2002. I hope you find our comments helpful.

James Groves
General Secretary
National Postgraduate Committee



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.

Responses to the recommendations

A) Mission and Objectives

Para 6

While it would not be appropriate for the Boards strategy for postgraduates to be wholly determined by the needs and interests of employers in particular sectors of the economy, it should make more explicit the part that the needs of the knowledge economy and employers play in helping to shape the aims, objectives and configuration of the programme.

We agree with the sentiment, especially given the AHRBs desire (which we support) to become a research council. We hope, though, that the needs of the economy and employers are not given undue weight. Equally important is the ability of postgraduate study to enrich, culturally and intellectually, the people undertaking it.

We advocate that AHRB adopt a simple, concise and dramatic mission statement. Too many public bodies adopt worthy-but-dull position statements, which offend no one but are rapidly forgotten; it is our hope that AHRB sets out in strident terms the case for public support of postgraduate study in the arts and humanities.

We feel there may be some merit in citing explicitly the needs of the industries associated with culture, media and sport. These are implicitly included in the term knowledge economy, but may merit fuller mention given the important role played by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (and its devolved counterparts in Scotland and Wales) in promoting and funding the arts.

E) Courses and Programmes Supported by AHRB Awards

Para 43

The Board should formally review its subject guidance in the academic year 2002-3; thereafter it should annually seek advice from its panels on the development of courses on the borderlines of its subject domain, or on the interfaces with the domains of the Research Councils; and it should amend its subject guidance after assessing that advice.

We broadly agree and concur that, too often, AHRB seems to just pick up those subject areas and courses not supported by the research councils.

Both NPC Scotland and NPC Wales expressed reservations concerning AHRBs postgraduate provision in Scottish-specific and Welsh-specific disciplines Scottish and Welsh literature and history, Celtic studies, languages and linguistics, and interdisciplinary studies in these areas. Applications in these areas are assessed (in panels 3, 4 or 5) with no especial regard for their Scottish or Welsh dimension; there are no guarantees that AHRB will fund any students in these disciplines. The Celtic languages (Welsh, Gaelic etc) fare especially badly; they are regarded merely as part of modern languages and linguistics (panel 5) with the whole of the non-English speaking world.

Given that both SHEFC and HEFCW fund AHRB, we feel AHRB needs to do more to support Scottish and Welsh-specific studies; for example, it could ensure the number of awards in these areas did not fall below a certain level, and/or it could establish a separate panel for Celtic languages and literature.

Para 45

All kinds of postgraduate music courses and doctoral programmes should be eligible for support, so long as they meet the eligibility criteria determined for courses and programmes across the domain of the arts and humanities.

We strongly agree.

F) Structure of Schemes

Para 47

The Board should establish two schemes to support students pursuing postgraduate taught courses:

  • first, a scheme to support students and courses across all areas of the arts and humanities where the qualification aim is at Masters level; where the specification for the course requires a predominant focus on academic study and advanced research training that is intended to provide an underpinning for further research (and that such work should occupy at least three-quarters of the time); and where there is a requirement to produce a dissertation or similar extended piece of work that contributes to the development of knowledge and understanding and which demonstrates proficiency as a fledgling researcher. Awards would be for one year in length, but with an allowance for up to two years where a special case was made. Such special cases would be subject to review every three years.
  • secondly, a scheme to support students and courses across all areas of the arts and humanities where the qualification aim is at Masters or Diploma level; where the specification for the course implies a primary focus that is vocational; and where in order to complete the course students will be required to demonstrate high levels of professional excellence. These courses will not require students to follow advanced research training programmes, to undertake work whose objective is to contribute to the development of knowledge and understanding, or to demonstrate proficiency as a fledgling researcher. Awards would be for one year only (with the three-year courses in painting conservation as the only exception to that rule).

We commend this paragraph. The previous system appeared perverse and over-complex to anyone not versed in AHRB history and, most importantly, led to the exclusion of the arts from research-oriented masters courses. This is of course at variance with the Boards stated preference for 1+3 schemes; it also leads to anomalies such as the ineligibility of courses in musical composition, discussed in paragraph 45.

We do not believe all 1+3 students should study the 1 and 3 elements at the same institution; indeed it is often beneficial for students to migrate for the doctoral phase of their studies. An institution wishing to offer doctoral level education in a subject area, but not having the resources to deliver a corresponding research-led masters course, should not be unfairly disadvantaged when it comes to attracting potential students and/or funding from AHRB.

Care should be taken to ensure the proposed vocational awards are not perceived as inferior in any sense to the research-based awards. The description above, by focusing principally on what the vocational awards will not be requiring of students, arguably risks this. We believe the description should be principally positive, focusing in more detail on the desired learning outcomes of a vocational taught course. They should be seen as a different course at the same level of attainment.

We have a comment on operating the 1+3 model in Scotland. NPC Scotland felt that, in some disciplines, the Scottish honours degree (at SCQF level 10) could well count as sufficient prior learning experience for direct progression to research study. It was felt that enforcing the 1+3 model too strictly could lead to Scottish honours graduates being forced to take a research-led masters course in order to progress to doctoral study, when this was not actually necessary. It would also fail to respect the distinct nature of the Scottish honours degree. Wed be keen to hear the AHRBs views on this topic.

Para 48

The Board should develop a register of courses accepted as falling within the domain of the arts and humanities, allocating each course to one of the two schemes described in paragraph 47 above.

We agree.

In our opinion, each registered course should be expected to conform to certain minimum standards of quality and delivery set by the Board. Whilst there may not be the desire or will to instigate a ESRC-type recognition exercise, the AHRB needs to be able to assure its students, and the wider community, that its funds are being spent in what it judges to be an appropriate environment. Any system of minimum standards should complement the revised systems of quality assurance and dissemination of information in higher education, as set out (for England) in recent reports from HEFCE (HEFCE, 2002) and the QAA (QAA, 2002).

Para 49

The aim should be to ensure that, in the interests of quality, the level of competition for awards in the new vocational scheme should be higher than at present (but not necessarily as high as it is in the research training scheme).

There is a non sequitur here the Board has not yet supplied an explanation for its decision to significantly cut the number of vocational awards. Its tautologically true that, if one reduces the number of awards made, the level of competition for the awards will increase! This is likely to rise still further if the reduction in awards leads to an increase in stipend.

It seems to us that the AHRB needs to give a great deal more consideration to this proposal. We accept that the current stipend for vocational awards is pitifully low; it is, however, better than nothing at all, and we worry about the possible impact on the supply of students if the numbers are cut.

We also accept that the presently high proportion of successful applicants for PVA awards could lead to a charge of unfairness against applicants for research-led awards, especially with the AHRB maturing towards research council status. However, the numbers of vocational awards should surely be basically demand-led. As paragraph 6 states, there is, of course, reference in the Boards mission to the contribution that postgraduates will make to the economy and in employment. We urge the Board to consult in detail with the professional bodies presently employing graduates of the PVA scheme, to ensure the Boards eventual decision is in line with their strategic planning.

The Scottish Executive funds the PSAS scheme, in significant numbers, for a reason it recognises the strategic importance of a healthy supply of qualified postgraduates. AHRB should, we believe, speak to the Scottish Executive about the merits and demerits of PSAS before taking a final decision on the future of its vocational awards.

Para 54

The Board should lead a debate on any necessary or desirable changes in the structure of the UK doctoral degree in the arts and humanities, alongside other subject areas, in order to maintain and enhance its quality and standing.

We agree. The findings of the New Route PhD project are likely to be important here.

Para 56

The Board should before the 2003 competition consider whether it should merge the pilot scheme of awards for doctoral research in the creative and performing arts into a single scheme of awards for the support of doctoral research across the whole of its subject domain.

There is an overwhelming case for harmonising the provision of doctoral training with research-led masters training, and so having a single competition for doctoral study across all areas of the arts and humanities. However, care must be taken to ensure the creative and performing arts receive adequate numbers of studentships for example, by amending the formula for allocating awards so that the numbers reflect in part the size and/or strategic importance of each subject area, as suggested in paragraphs 69-77.

Para 57

The Board should initiate discussions with relevant stakeholders to assess the scope for the development of new kinds of doctorates in the arts and humanities, including taught doctorates and doctoral projects run in collaboration with non-HEI partners. It should keep a close watch for any developments initiated by others, either from the HE sector or from elsewhere.

We commend the recent report of the UKCGE Working Group on Professional Doctorates (UKCGE, 2002).

Para 58

The Board should make greater efforts, through a targeted publicity drive, to ensure that the availability of part-time awards is made better known.

We agree. The lack of awareness is, we feel, at least in part due to the horrendous complexity and opaqueness of the current postgraduate funding system.

Para 59

The Board should maintain its current policy of not providing awards for part-time study at Masters or Diploma levels.

We are not convinced. It is true, as you mention, that numbers of part-time masters and diploma students have grown rapidly over the past decade without the benefit of financial support from the AHRB; this does not necessarily imply that there are not highly talented individuals who are presently being put off from pursuing a masters (and, subsequently, a doctorate) due to the lack of awards available. This is an area where more research is urgently needed; indeed the whole issue of widening participation at postgraduate level deserves significantly more research.

If the AHRB is to take the 1+3 approach seriously, it should surely fund aspirant doctoral students (i.e. those pursuing research-led masters degrees) as well as doctoral students. We feel, therefore, that some part-time awards should be made available, on a competitive basis, to students on any of the research-led masters courses recognised by the AHRB.

We do not, however, feel there is a strong case for providing awards for part-time study on a vocational masters or diploma course. This is an area where funding from other sources, notably employers, is certainly available in reasonable quantities. Any additional money for these courses should be prioritised on raising the stipend level for funded full-time students above the present insultingly low level.

Para 61

The current ratio of support of 2:1 in favour of Masters and Diploma level awards should be modified so that the numbers of awards at Masters and doctoral levels fall more nearly into balance; and that support at Masters and Diploma level should be weighted firmly in favour of the research training scheme.

We found your calculations perplexing. It seemed to us that, if AHRB is serious about promoting the 1+3 approach, the number of full-time awards for research-led masters courses should surely match the number of full-time awards for doctoral programmes. While we accept that some students will not attract funding following their masters, and others will not attract funding until they commence their research study, this should be viewed as part of a cohort being replaced, while the size of the cohort remains the same.

If the number of doctoral awards were to become significantly more than the number of research-led masters awards, wed worry that many talented students, likely to attract support at doctoral level from AHRB, would never be in a position to apply for a doctoral award due to being unable to secure funding for their masters.

To summarise, we believe the numbers of full-time research-led masters awards and full-time doctoral awards should stay broadly the same. The real policy decision, therefore, concerns the numbers of these awards versus the numbers of full-time vocational masters and diploma awards. As we mentioned in our response to paragraph 49, we believe the latter should be determined at least in part by levels of demand from professional bodies and employers.

Para 62

Project studentships attached to advanced research awards should continue to be developed, in the light of monitoring of the initial groups of awards. It is not proposed, however, that they should become a dominant feature of the Boards provision for postgraduate study. They should be included in calculations of the balance between one-year and three-year awards.

We agree.

G) Methods of Allocating Awards

Para 67

The Board should continue to employ student-driven competitions as the principal mechanism for allocating awards; but that it should take all possible steps arising from the current review of operational processes to ensure that the administrative burdens of the competitions are minimised.

We agree, but wish to highlight one point mentioned in paragraph 66, concerning the relatively late timing of the announcement of results under the present system. This can cause serious distress to applicants, and often obstructs their ability to plan their lives. Unsuccessful applicants often find themselves at a disadvantage when it comes to finding a job, as their contemporaries often have several months head start. Successful applicants may find they have missed deadlines for applying for campus accommodation or facilities. We encourage the AHRB to do all they can to ensure future results are announced as early as possible.

Para 68

The Board should therefore seek the views of the sector on whether a quota-based system of allocations should be employed in the new scheme of professional and vocational awards, and on how such a system, based on assessments of quality, might be implemented.

We agree, and consider a quota system appropriate in this case.

However, using a quota system places considerable responsibility upon individual institutions and departments to ensure studentships are awarded in line with equal opportunities principles. We feel there are too many instances of studentships in the sciences being made to favoured sons we use the gender-specific term advisedly following an inadequate advertisement and/or selection process. The AHRB must take seriously its responsibility to ensure that all quota studentships are allocated in a fair and transparent manner.

Para 73

The Board should revise the formula for the allocation of awards to each of the eight broad areas covered by its peer review panels, so that it relates both to the numbers of applications received and also to the overall numbers of Masters and doctoral students in each area.

We agree. As discussed in our reply to paragraph 43, we feel there are certain subjects, of regional and/or national significance, where the AHRB-funded postgraduate cohort should not be allowed to fall below a certain level.

Para 77

The Board should implement a competition to determine key areas of study that for strategic reasons merit support in the form of ring-fenced numbers of doctoral awards for a period of three annual rounds; and that once the areas for support have been determined, awards should be allocated to them through student-driven competitions, in which threshold quality standards should be applied.

We feel strategic support should be available in principle at all levels of postgraduate study, not just doctoral level. As we mentioned in our responses to paragraphs 59 and 61, we believe aspirant doctoral students (i.e. those on research-led masters courses) deserve support on the same basis that doctoral students receive support; this is consistent with the 1+3 approach. In the absence of any support at masters level, it is possible that talented potential doctoral students in a strategically funded area will drop out, due to lack of funding at the masters stage.

We agree, though, with your point of principle. There are some subject areas, such as modern languages, which potentially face a crisis of supply in future; the AHRB may well wish to actively encourage postgraduate study in these disciplines by funding significantly more applicants than would be likely under open competition.

H) Training

Para 82

The AHRB should develop a framework of requirements that is sensitive to the needs and requirements of the arts and humanities, but takes full account also of wider perspectives.

We strongly agree. Any such framework should take note of the current Joint Funding Councils Review of Postgraduate Research Training, due to report later this year.

Para 84

The Board should consider providing either a research training support grant to accompany every doctoral award, or specific grants to support the development of innovative provision (whether within a single HEI or in a collaborative group).

We support both; research training support grants for individual students should be coupled with strategic grants to encourage innovative and collaborative provision, especially within emerging disciplines and departments.

The quality of a research training environment is driven by more than just infrastructure, however. The size and vibrancy of the postgraduate community (either within a department, or as part of a collaborative network between several departments and/or HEIs) is also critical.

I) Outcomes

Para 90

The current policy of penalties on departments should be maintained; and it should be applied to whole institutions only when submission rates are low across the range of departments, but very small numbers of award-holders in individual departments would otherwise preclude any penalties at all.

We agree.

We take slight exception to your phrase, more needs to be done . . . to make students more fully aware of their joint responsibilities in ensuring that they complete in due time, and of the implications if they fail to do so, in paragraph 90. Students who progress beyond three years face considerable hardship and opportunity cost writing up a PhD is not exactly a sybaritic lifestyle! and we know of very few students who dont wish to submit, and move on in life, as soon as it is practical to do so. In our experience it is often the over-emphasis on enforcing completion within four years, and lack of emphasis on ensuring a structured, supportive research environment throughout the period of doctoral study, which ultimately leads to late submissions.

Para 92

The Board should establish systems to enable it to conduct career tracking surveys. The Board should also seek, through surveys of final year doctoral students, information as to what they believe that they have gained as a result of their studies.

We strongly endorse proposals for career tracking surveys. It should surely be possible for AHRB to establish an alumni programme for its past students, to enable information to be collected at periodic (infrequent!) intervals throughout their lives.

We suggest it is better to survey doctoral students once they have completed their studies (possibly via an exit interview) than during their third year, to ensure the information is both objective and reflective. There are many students, for example, who would (sadly) feel too intimidated to raise serious concerns whilst still enrolled.

Para 93

The Board should seek to develop links with employer and employee representatives to understand better the views and requirements of employers both in the academic and non-academic sectors.

We agree particularly on the need to consult employee representatives as well as employers.


HEFCE, 2002 Information on quality and standards in higher education: final report of the task group (HEFCE report 02/15, March 2002)

QAA, 2002 QAA external review process for higher education in England: operational description March 2002 (QAA 019 03/02)

UKCGE, 2002 Prof Jennifer Bone (convenor) and others, Professional Doctorates: report of the UKCGE Working Group (UK Council for Graduate Education, March 2002)