NPC/02/08/A: Scottish Executive Review of Higher Education - Second Consultation Paper

The Scottish Executive

Scottish Higher Education Review

Second consultation paper

Response by the National Postgraduate Committee

On behalf of the National Postgraduate Committee I am pleased to respond to the Scottish Executives second consultation paper on the Scottish Higher Education Review. This was discussed at length at a meeting of NPC Scotland, our Scottish Subcommittee, in the Robert Gordon University Union, Aberdeen on Saturday 8 June 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.

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

Our response to the consultation paper is structured in two parts. Firstly we shall briefly comment on certain parts of section 1 (the introductory section); we will then respond in detail to the questions posed in section 2. We have no specific comments to make on section 3; our response to section 2 incorporates our thoughts on section 3s proposals.

Section 1 the challenge of inevitable change: higher education, getting Scotland growing

We endorse wholeheartedly your statement that: a particularly defining characteristic of our higher education institutions is their relationship with research at the cutting edge. We would go further to us, the pervasive research culture in Scottish higher education is the very thing which makes teaching and learning in higher education so distinct and valuable. The opportunity to be taught by, and in some cases to influence, leading practitioners in their field is a profound one which should be available to anyone with the ability to benefit from it.

We are pleased to note you have not simply focused on higher education as a means towards economic prosperity and skills development, important though these aspects are. As you say: higher education has an impact on understandings of culture and civilisation, history and identity, justice and good society. These less quantifiable benefits of higher education are too often neglected.

We hope the Executive will acknowledge the key role of postgraduate education, especially at taught level, in lifelong learning and continuing professional development one of the fastest growing areas of higher education in Scotland. Postgraduate courses are increasingly delivered as modular and/or distance learning schemes, partly in response to demand but also due to the inherent suitability of many postgraduate programmes for these flexible methods of learning.

Section 2 from here to there: directions for change

Teaching and learning

Do you agree that the key challenges in teaching and learning for higher education institutions over the next decade will be developing new student markets, and making the higher education they provide available on more flexible terms? Where will the greatest opportunities, and the largest obstacles, in meeting these challenges lie?

There will certainly be a need to develop new markets if Scottish higher education is to thrive in future. This is partly for purely financial reasons institutions need to expand their provision if they are to survive but also because, as the paper recognises, there is a limit to the numbers of people willing or able to study full-time and/or by face-to-face means.

The need for more flexible modes of study is certainly highly applicable to postgraduate education; indeed in many ways the postgraduate taught degree is ideally suited to modular and distance-based schemes. We are watching the fortunes of the eUniversity initiative, and the UHI Millennium Institute, with great interest.

There are two specific issues we wish to raise:

(i) Flexibility is no compromise for quality. Compiling and responding to student feedback is as crucial where the teaching is delivered via remote means as where it is face to face. Its important that institutions develop means of maintaining regular contact with all their students, however they are taught.

(ii) E-learning needs e-representation. It is critical that effective systems of student representation are developed for distance and modular learners. Students associations need support from their institution and SHEFC to develop their representational structures and ensure effective participation by distance and modular learners at all levels within their institution.

Do you agree that increasing the proportion of students from the lower socio-economic groups is now the key challenge in widening access in Scotland? What are the most important actions the Executive could take to meet that goal?

We agree, but would sound a note of caution. The most effective way to tackle the low rates of participation in higher education by those from the lower socio-economic groups is to increase the levels of resources going to pre-16 education and develop effective anti-poverty strategies. There is only a certain amount that the higher education sector in itself can achieve. The sector can and should do more, certainly, notably in terms of mentoring and access schemes. However the overall problem must be seen holistically as part of a general programme for reducing poverty in Scotland.

In terms of access to postgraduate education, the Executive must come to terms with two harsh realities:

(i) The levels of student financial support available to undergraduates are still inadequate (albeit preferable to those available elsewhere in the UK); accumulated undergraduate debt is forcing many prospective postgraduates to abandon their academic studies and go straight into the job market.

(ii) The levels of student financial support available to postgraduates, especially at taught level, are wholly inadequate (albeit, due to the PSAS scheme, greatly preferable to those available elsewhere in the UK); many talented prospective postgraduates are simply unable to pursue their studies due to lack of funds, leading to a waste of human potential and a possible skills shortage in the future.

The Executive must also recognise that the e-learning revolution has its limits. A PC is increasingly seen as a prerequisite for those entering higher education, yet how many students from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds possess a PC? There is a need for greatly increased access to IT facilities across Scotland perhaps the Executive could work in partnership with higher education institutions, developing schemes to allow community access to institutions IT facilities.

Do you agree that Scotland should seek to develop stronger links between labour market needs and higher education provision? What are the key issues to consider in seeking to develop those links?

We agree, and see an ever-increasing role for postgraduate taught courses in achieving this. Already there are many postgraduate courses where the bulk of those enrolling are sponsored by their employers; in future an increase in demand from employers (who value the skills their employees will acquire) and an increase in supply from institutions (who increasingly rely on postgraduate fee income to fund themselves) are likely to combine to produce significant growth.

The main issue to consider, as we have mentioned before, is the need to improve access to such courses for those who do not have an employer to sponsor them but, nevertheless, are likely to be of significant benefit to the labour market once they have graduated. The NPC has long called for postgraduates to have access to the student loans scheme; we hope the Executive will consider this as part of their deliberations.

Do you agree with the importance of increasing the numbers of overseas students, either as distance learners or coming to study here and the need for Scottish wide co-operation to do this? What more can be done in linking to Globalscot or alumni networks, for example, to help achieve this?

We agree this is a critical issue for higher education in Scotland. Overseas students have high expectations of institutions, which are understandable given the premium fees they will usually be paying. Many institutions will need significant capital expenditure on their facilities and resources, both on campus and online, if they are truly to attract a significant share of the overseas student market. We urge the Executive to acknowledge the serious need for more investment in Scottish higher education in order to attract high calibre international students.

Alumni networks are becoming increasingly important as means of promoting institutions to potential overseas students. To be truly effective they need to be adequately funded however; we trust that SHEFC will consider the economic benefits of properly resourced alumni networks when it allocates future funding.

To us, the internationalisation of higher education throws up two, possibly contradictory, possible aims for the Executive:

(i) The need to adequately support Scottish-domiciled students and potential students as they progress through higher education and into graduate employment;

(ii) The need to attract high quality innovators and researchers of the future to study and, ultimately, live and work in Scotland, wherever they are domiciled at present.

Its critical that the Executive recognises the potential for conflict here, and strikes an effective balance between the two needs.

We would be very interested to hear the Executives views on what impact the GATS treaty is likely to have on Scottish higher education. Will it affect the way SHEFC is able to allocate funds for teaching and/or research?

Research and knowledge

Do you agree with the aim that in a decade from now: obvious areas of strategic weakness should have been addressed; there should be better networked groups of academics in linked research distributed across Scottish institutions, and beyond; institutions should be collaborating more strategically to maximise the effectiveness of investment in research? What are the opportunities and obstacles to pursuing this aim?

We agree. The need for collaboration between institutions is particularly important. From a postgraduate perspective, it is vital that postgraduate research students are properly integrated into all research networks. This improves the quality of students education and skills training as well as helping to counter the feelings of isolation which often affect research students. It enables them to truly feel part of the academic community.

Do you agree that the other key research challenge for the decade is the need to continue to encourage and support innovation and creative thinking about knowledge transfer? Again, what are the opportunities and obstacles?

Knowledge transfer is indeed vital for the Scottish economy. It would be interesting to hear the Executives opinions on the specific contributions that postgraduate research can make to knowledge transfer. Both during their research (where they will often form key parts of research groups) and afterwards (where they will often have progressed to key jobs in academia, industry and business R&D), postgraduate research students make significant contributions to the Scottish economy.

Looking specifically at the commercialisation of research, where is action most urgently needed, if we are to maximise the impact of higher education?

We trust the Executive will consider the possible impact on academic freedom caused by increased commercialisation in research. Principles need to be laid down on issues such as conflict of interest and commercial confidentiality. Important areas of research should not go unfunded simply because of a lack of a commercial partner.

Too often the phrase knowledge transfer is only applied to the natural sciences and technology. We hope the Executive will pay proper regard to the positive impact that the arts and humanities have on the economy, via the cultural and tourist industries.

Governance and management

Do you agree that SHEFC should develop a stronger dialogue with the sector and work more closely with individual institutions? What impact might that have on the way funding is determined for individual institutions by the Council?

SHEFC should have a more wide-ranging planning role, with the power to tailor funding to the specific needs of each institution. There will of course be a continued need for significant formula funding. The diversity of the higher education sector in Scotland should be reflected in the policies of its funding council, however.

Do you agree that higher education institutions need to develop their capacity for long-term planning? What are the opportunities and obstacles?

We agree strongly. The main obstacles to long-term planning are the short-term nature of many research grants which, coupled with the short-termism that the RAE (for all its benefits) imposes on institutions, makes it extremely difficult for the majority of higher education institutions to plan for more than a few years in advance.

Do you agree that this long-term planning must involve more active collaboration between institutions? What are the obstacles to that at present?

We agree. The Executive must encourage dialogue between institutions to facilitate proper collaboration on planning matters.

The analysis above sets out particular issues relating to staff development and management of estates. Do you agree that these should be key areas of concern for this review?

We do. We would encourage institutions to more effectively integrate postgraduate research students, particularly those with teaching responsibilities, into their staff development processes. It is important for the higher education sector and the economy more generally that postgraduate research students can develop and progress as academics whether or not they ultimately end up working in academia.