by Tim Brown
From the postgraduate perspective, there is clearly a difference of opinion as to which option is the most appropriate with limited funding available in the social sciences. In both the competition and quota award cases there are disadvantages as far as the prospective postgraduate is concerned. Based on previous NPC policy we give more preference to the quota award option. However, we would note that issues of equality of opportunity and speed of response to applications with fair allocation of awards are set by the ESRC. Further to this we would note that allocating awards should not only be based on the grade of the research unit in the research and assessment exercise but also on standards in research degree programmes of a research unit.
The National Postgraduate Committee (NPC) is a charity with the aim to advance, in the public interest, postgraduate education 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 student representative bodies 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 as well as other bodies relevant to postgraduate education.
Which option does the institution/learned society prefer and why?
Deciding between the option of competition awards and quota awards with the limited funding availability is difficult since both have their disadvantages as far as the postgraduate is concerned. As far as equality of opportunity and seeking the best candidates is concerned, the best option would be the competition awards, although competition could be extremely fierce in some cases and hinder applications. We appreciate quota awards could ease this on the other hand and also speed up the process so that the student is informed as to whether they have gained a place earlier on so they can seek other opportunities or make relocation arrangements if necessary. In the end, however, some applicants will still not succeed as gaining awards is not easy.
In our response to the AHRB postgraduate review in February 2002, we supported their quota awards system on the basis of response time being shortened. We again identify that it is also appropriate to give the same response here. However, we would note that careful measures are taken which would be more appropriate to note in response to the next question.
Are there any additional principles that should underpin the ESRC's approach in this area?
If quota awards are chosen we would again stress the points we made in the AHRB postgraduate review, where provisions for equality of opportunity are ensured within the research units where students are being brought forward. It is easily the case that favoritism could occur in such circumstances, possibly against those from lower social class backgrounds. This goes against the government widening participation agenda, which may extend to postgraduate education in the future. To ensure that equal opportunities are fully implemented we would require a fair and transparent application process to be adopted, which ESRC should set regulations for. We would also stress that resources are used as best as possible in order that the advantage of speed of response is best maintained.
What mechanisms are most likely to attract the strongest candidates?
Active advertising of the posts both at local level and at national level via ESRCs communication means would help prospective postgraduates to access their options. The research units concerned would therefore be actively opening their doors to possible applicants. This would be particularly helpful for those continuing straight from undergraduate education where they may otherwise apply for a studentship at the same institution with the expectation that their chances of acceptance are higher there.
Would particular approaches be likely to advantage or disadvantage particular institutions, disciplines/subject areas or other groups?
A strong disadvantage of the quota awards system is that many awards are likely to be allocated to a select group of research units, thus making the decision also complicated. This in particular may hardest hit emerging research so we would strongly encourage all research units to be considered eligible to hold awards.
What factors/data should determine the allocation of any quotas?
It is our impression that allocation of quotas are largely determined by research and assessment exercise grades. We will stress here that from the postgraduate perspective research quality does not reflect the standards of research training, supervision or facilities in the research environment that the research student will require. Some research units may well use high quotas as a means to increase their supply of researchers in a more economic way while not actually developing them as researchers and achieving successful completion rates.
In light of this we would strongly urge that quotas are allocated to research units that can make the most successful candidates even more successful, which will result in better output at the end. An important element of this would be the level to which the research units supervisors have training and experience. We feel considering such standards result in better use of the limited funding available as well as benefiting postgraduate students in the long term. This bears much relevance to the recent consultation taking place on improving standards in research degree programmes, which has our support.
Do you have any comments about the allocation of ESRC studentships to particular topics or subject areas?
We would consider that providing sufficient resources to a particular research area is a matter for the research units who do not necessarily require a larger number of quotas to obtain a supply of researchers. We are concerned with the fact that a prospective postgraduate has fair access to studentships available in a subject of their choice so it is important that quotas are allocated suitably.