NPC/03/04/B: Department for Education and Skills, Response to the Higher Education Strategy White Paper

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Also in Consultations 2003...

by Tim Brown

Executive Summary

Like many other organisations we have undertaken discussion amongst members of our organisation to consider the benefits and implications that the higher education strategy document has with respect to postgraduates. Following these discussions, we have outlined our areas of interest with respect to research, knowledge transfer, learning and teaching, undergraduate funding and other minor proposals. Our responses to these individual areas are addressed one by one. In summary the main points where we give our praise are:

  • The emphasis given towards research driving our economy and that the importance of postgraduate research has been acknowledged in this through the increased stipends of funding.
  • The endorsement of proposals in the Roberts Review to facilitate postgraduate training and increase the employability of those obtaining research qualifications.
  • The formation of the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
  • The re-introduction of a maintenance grant along with more emphasis on improvements at further education level to help access for those particularly vulnerable.
  • The proposal to introduce an independent adjudicator as a means to move away from the out-dated visitorial system.

We do also have a number of areas where we would raise our concern outlined below, some of which bear a significant role in extending the widening participation agenda to postgraduate education.

  • The concentration of research funding to highly rated institutions will lead to less choice for postgraduates possibly removing research centres that have significant value in training researchers.
  • The possible decline in access to postgraduate opportunities with the formation of knowledge transfer or teaching intensive institutions.
  • The lack of attention given towards postgraduates in the teaching and learning proposals, particularly where high quality is expected.
  • Postgraduate research students may also teach and should be given attention as well as academic staff with regards to teaching excellence.
  • The level of debt upon graduation could have serious consequences in terms of whether students will continue to postgraduate study.
  • The increase in tuition fees will even counteract the efforts made to increase the stipend for postgraduate research degrees.
  • The repayment threshold is considered to be too low where further debt could result following postgraduate study.
  • The proposals to remove the Privy Council from governing University statutes appears to have no alternative set in place, we therefore ask that this is sought.

Research

Chapter 2 has been of the most significant interest to the NPC both regarding the interests of postgraduates and those that continue to postdoctoral research or other career paths outside academia. We acknowledge the governments recognition of research in higher education to support a knowledge based economy. A number of aspects of the proposals are strongly welcomed following the Roberts Review and plans with the funding councils to improve standards in research degree programmes. We do also raise our concern, however, with regards to the future options of postgraduates in light of the current proposals to re-organise the funding of research.

The increase in funding will clearly be advantageous to research students with the increase of stipends and the need to improve training and equipping of research students undertaking the traditional PhD. These two factors are essential to attract more applications to research degrees so that graduates will identify with clear benefits that can improve their future career prospects. At present the distinction between successful PhD graduates compared to others in terms of employability is not clearly defined given the vast opportunities that could be available. The formation of an Arts and Humanities Research Council is also warmly welcomed, which will provide a more balanced importance of research across the different disciplines. We welcome the interest that has been expressed in all aspects of research by the proposals made.

We also recognise another important factor affecting the supply of UK researchers in academia is the comparatively low income of researchers compared to the graduate starting salaries available outside. This is therefore in desperate need of being addressed so that researchers in academia can be recruited and retained for long periods in order to strengthen research units.

It is evident that concentration of research towards higher rated research units, and possibly research intensive institutions will result in order to achieve the goals mentioned above. We do acknowledge the need to increase funding in research units not only to recruit and retain researchers as well as research students but also to overcome the backlog of infrastructure and lack of resources that have accumulated over the years. However, the concentration of research funding does concern us in that better research funding of such research units will happen at the expense of losing research units with significant potential in other areas.

We strongly feel that high research quality does not have a bearing upon the quality of the research environment in which research students can be appropriately trained and supported. It could be the case that some research students will not find large, highly rated research units supportive and suitably geared in a way that will successfully take them as a student through a research programme. Smaller research units, that may otherwise not have as high a rating in their research quality, may offer a more suitable environment to allow their students to achieve research potential. Removal of such units may significantly reduce the options open to prospective postgraduates, which could bear a significant limit on widening participation in postgraduate education. We are concerned at present as to how the current plans to widen access at undergraduate level will extend to postgraduate qualifications for those who wish to continue. Retaining the choice and variety of institutions in order to make this possible is vital, under current proposals large research units will not be suitably geared to meet these interests.

Another major aspect of concern that is mentioned in chapter 2 is the use of research as a support to teaching. This has some common ground with aspects of knowledge transfer that we will discuss in the next section.

Knowledge Transfer

In chapter 3 clear examples of knowledge transfer in a non research intensive environment are presented although they are in their early days of development. We acknowledge the need to implement this in terms of providing education to a wider audience particularly at undergraduate and foundation level. At postgraduate level knowledge transfer is also in existence in areas such as law, social work, aspects of medical practise and teaching. We therefore identify this and support the proposals to continue working with the Teacher Training Agency and the Department of Health in order to increase the supply of workforce in these areas.

In our experience it is largely the case that taught master level degrees and of course research degrees will require access to academic research as a support to the teaching and the research that students will carry out. With the reduction and possibly removal of research in some institutions we are concerned that this will severely affect the availability of higher degrees and in turn the choice that prospective postgraduates will have. We envisage that there will be greater availability of higher degrees in large research intensive institutions rather than knowledge transfer institutions. Should this be the case we would consider postgraduates to be largely concentrated in larger institutions undertaking world class research.

As mentioned in the previous section, we strongly feel there that research quality does not bear any relation to the quality of teaching, support and development of individual students. Such factors are vital in developing the interests of graduates who have progressed significantly during their undergraduate degree. It may be that an undergraduate who has achieved well in a knowledge transfer institution wishes to continue to research and undertake a postgraduate qualification although the institution may not be able to provide this. Therefore this could provide an uncertain and uncomfortable future when moving to a larger research intensive institution with a significantly different environment. Like the reduction in options available, this could also have serious implications in terms of extending the widening participation agenda to encourage able students to progress towards higher degrees.

In conclusion, we acknowledge the need to enhance education at foundation level especially although we are concerned about the implications this could have on the future of postgraduate education, both taught and research. We therefore urge the government to ensure this will not be affected to enable all graduates to achieve as highly as possible.

Teaching and Learning

We acknowledge that an important element in the reform of higher education is to improve teaching quality particularly as the student is becoming a customer of higher education institutions. The proposals for a feedback survey, improved teaching quality, teaching accreditation, the formation of a teaching academy all have our support. It does concern us, however, that there is no attention paid to postgraduates; we are under the impression that this is all driven towards undergraduate education.

In terms of postgraduate education there is an ever more important reason to have the best quality of teaching due to the market rate fees that are obtained from postgraduates. Expectations of postgraduates are also likely to be higher so we would urge the proposals made to specifically include postgraduates and ensure that they are also tailored to the interests of this international market.

Another key area we see a lack of attention paid to postgraduates is regarding those who teach. With the decline in recent years of academic staff availability, there has been a steady increase in the number of research postgraduates who undertake teaching responsibilities to assist academics. Such responsibilities include tutoring, laboratory supervision and other practical classes. We identify teaching as beneficial to the postgraduate, however, it is just as important that they are included in teaching accreditation schemes and have access to appropriate training for the benefit of themselves and others. We therefore ask that postgraduates, who play a significant role, are also considered with regard to improvements in teaching quality.

At postgraduate level, we already have expressed our concerns over access to research. It is evident that not all institutions with the title of University will be able to offer a wide range of postgraduate education. It will not be possible under this system to identify the institutions that are teaching intensive only, which are likely to teach only to first degree level compared to the research intensive ones that would be able to offer more postgraduate education. Another point to add with regards to the title of University is the fact that these proposals are completely inconsistent with the European idea of what a University is as outlined in the Bologna Declaration. We therefore suggest an alternative in this situation should teaching intensive institutions be formulated.

Through previous policy responses, we have expressed our desire to see the removal of the visitorial system in institutions that still use it. Our policy is to see the development of a system of external independent review to address student complaints. We are therefore supportive of the recommendation to have an independent adjudicator and continue to support this being implemented leading to the eventual abolishment of the visitor.

Undergraduate Funding

Although we are an organisation for postgraduates, we are still conscious of the undergraduate funding proposals in respect of whether graduates will have the desire to continue to postgraduate study. We have long standing policy against debt upon graduation, which postgraduate debt will only add to. We would draw your attention to a survey that we published recently (which we commissioned the University of Warwick Students Union to produce) [1] that addresses issues of graduates being hindered from postgraduate study. This is yet another important issue in terms of continuing to widen the participation towards postgraduate education.

With the increase in tuition fees, whether or not they are paid before or after graduation still places a burden on graduates wishing to pursue postgraduate education with expenses as high as £3,000. We are highly concerned about this, as it will counteract the efforts to attract more postgraduates even with the increased stipends. It is also of concern that the payback threshold at £15,000 is still too low and we would be inclined to increase this as far as £25,000. In this situation, repayment is deferred in order that those obtaining higher degrees are suitably stable to repay following other expenses they may have incurred during postgraduate study, while also being able to build up other life investments.

Another important point to address is that undergraduate students do not have a sufficiently sized loan, resulting in the need for them to undertake part time work and possibly risk of entering a bank overdraft. Naturally this will again be an obstacle to postgraduate education resulting in extensive financial difficulty. Such factors do not encourage continuation to postgraduate education so therefore we oppose the tuition fees and living costs in order for students to easily continue to postgraduate education. We would therefore urge that these proposals are reviewed again in terms of level of fees, repayment threshold and level of state support. Therefore students are not in any way prevented from achieving their highest academic potential. These proposals, we feel, will have severe effect with regards to whether the widening participation agenda can be extended to postgraduate education.

We are encouraged to see the re-introduction of a maintenance grant for undergraduates from poorer backgrounds. We do stress, however, that the means testing limits and the level of the grant is still insufficient for such students. The grant should still be available for students with parental income at a higher than the value stated in order that they will be suitably funded and stable beyond graduation.

Other Details

There are two other main aspects of the white paper we wish to address. The first is the issue of removing of the Privy Council to change University statutes. We appreciate the problems with bureaucracy delaying the process although it is not clear as to what alternative there will be in order to maintain suitable governance. We therefore request that proposals to remove the Privy Councils control over statutes do not take place until a suitable new means of governance to centrally oversee institutions are put in place.

Secondly, we raise the point of endowment funds. We agree that they should be accepted and encouraged in all cases possible and that gift aid be used in order to allow such charitable contributions to go further. We do not, however, support the idea that institutions should rely on them as an alternative to other forms of support and so we would not wish to see requests for such contributions conveyed this way. It is clearly the case that this is intended and it should not be used to support essential resources in institutions. There are a vast majority of other resources that could otherwise be invested in from the charitable benefits that endowment funds bring.

References

1. J. Darwen, E. Bell, S. Goodlad, National Survey of Postgraduate Funding and Priorities, http://www.npc.org.uk/page/1042481249.pdf, Produced University of Warwick Students' Union, Sponsored by CSU Prospects Ltd. Published by National Postgraduate Committee, Summer 2002.