NPC/04/04/B: HM Treasury, Department of Trade and Industry, Department for Education and Skills, Science and Innovation: Working towards a ten-year investment framework

by Tim Brown

Executive Summary

As our response reflects that of the interest of postgraduate taught and research students, we have answered appropriate questions in this consultation that being questions 1, 5, 9, 10 and 11. You will find our responses below to those respective questions.

Preamble

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.

1. Are these the right areas for the Government and its partners to target over the next ten years? What are the underlying components of success in these areas and what roles do Government and other funders of the science base need to play in achieving these aims?

To begin with, we also identify and support the need to have a more responsive supply of science and technology in higher education. There is, however, a need to promote better teaching excellence and standard of training towards research at undergraduate level as a means towards attracting the supply of postgraduate researchers in this area. We identify the lack of researchers in this subject area and urge for higher education as well as further education and schools to be included in the process of widening participation. We identify three means to assist in attracting graduates to continue their studies at postgraduate level and/or pursue postgraduate research:

  • Comparable income with that of a graduate salary.
  • A comprehensive postgraduate research training programme that has transparency to the student to identify with the benefits of such study or research be they part time or full time.
  • Responsibility on the institution's behalf to meet the needs of their postgraduate market, that postgraduates will find their postgraduate student experience of a unique difference and beneficial to the role they are undertaking. Postgraduates are a significantly different community from that of undergraduates in which an appropriately attractive working environment is needed. This applies to every aspect of student life from social support through to academic and learning support.

While increased funding and availability of training recommended by Roberts is warmly welcomed, we are at the same time concerned about the burden of debt at undergraduate level that could counteract any further study. We therefore continue to urge Government in addressing the lack of compatibility in the student loan system with respect to postgraduate study proposed in the higher education bill.

We will also express our concern for the need to have science, technology and innovation in all regional areas. Funding only the best centres of excellence is not sufficient if their geographical distribution is limited. State of the art research must be based across the UK if it is going to be possible to engage as wider an audience as possible in schools, further and higher education institutions. Those in more rural areas of the country will have had little opportunity to find out about higher education or appreciate the importance of research in science and innovation as a "third-leg" audience. Placing a critical mass of research within every region will then allow mechanisms to communicate and disseminate this to both undergraduates in smaller less research intensive institutions and also those in school education that need to be encouraged into such research.

Finally we wish to give our concern for the need to fund more taught postgraduate courses, which have evident benefit in specialist areas of science and technology. There are many means by which students will benefit, either as full time students beyond graduation, returning to full time education from previous professional experience or undertaking part time study alongside the career they have moved into. Running taught postgraduate courses in connection with industry provides an important part in the role of knowledge transfer, where appropriate scholarships could be offered. The need to undertake MSc taught courses in this area has often been undervalued, to enable those in industry to develop advanced cognitive thinking possibly leading them into research. This also points out the need to realise the interfaces between teaching and research within science and technology. The benefits of such taught courses will not exist without the access to research and scholarship that is available within academia should they wish to advance their studies in this area. Access to part time study is an attractive option for many already in industry, so it is therefore necessary to ensure that access to research at regional level will maintain this.

5. In light of the changes to be made to the next RAE, how can funding mechanisms build on existing resources and research assessment reforms to reward excellence and underpin sustainability?

We strongly support new proposals towards ensuring equality of opportunity in access to research and also development of researchers. This will play an important role in underpinning sustainability to move towards a stronger recruitment and retention of academic researchers, who are so easily lost to industry. The support and development of postgraduate researchers will also play an important role in this to ensure that continuation to academic research is maintained.

9. The Lambert Review was based on extensive consultation during 2003. Reactions to the analysis and proposals set out by the Lambert Review, and in particular to the Government's proposed response, are very welcome.

We are certainly in support of better arrangements for intellectual property rights, where bureaucracy and outdated practise is preventing ease of funding for research projects. We do, however, wish to see that opportunity for postgraduates to have freedom in how they can use their research interests they have developed beyond graduation and be permitted for publication, for the benefit of the research community as a whole. Clear guidelines set out on model intellectual property agreements that will not put limiting constraints on postgraduates restricting their future career paths should be available.

Also we strongly support the role of regional development agencies to facilitate links with business and academia. At the same time we are currently urging regional development agencies to identify the value of taught postgraduate programmes, which can develop and maintain quality professionals needed in various specialist subjects. We would therefore encourage suitable regional level funding in both part time and full time taught postgraduate courses to increase the supply of professionals needed in specialist areas.

We also encourage the need for the higher education innovation fund but we insist that it is available to provide support in allowing research to propagate within every region so that constructive knowledge exchange can exist between business and academia. This will be essential in building small to medium enterprises.

10. Following the 2002 review by Sir Gareth Roberts of the supply of scientists and engineers and the Government's response, what is the emerging evidence on the prospects for the supply and demand of science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills? How can women and other low participatory groups be more encouraged to pursue higher education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and to pursue careers in these areas?

We warmly welcome increase in funding stipends, although we re-address our concern that burden of debt from undergraduate education will place hindrance towards continuing to postgraduate research, especially if it is necessary to undertake a postgraduate taught degree prior to a research degree. In such circumstances, graduate employment will be an only option to meet the future costs of higher education.

Training for postgraduate research students also needs to be actively demonstrated and continually reviewed to identify how it does and will benefit the postgraduate research student. Output of such training will be demonstrated by both the student and employer identifying breadth of skills attained both on paper and in practice. Constructive feedback of this nature is essential.

It is disappointing that the funding duration for the traditional PhD has not been extended to 3.5 years as recommended by Roberts. This is concerning where limitations on the availability of equipment or lab space, insufficient supervision or other administrative circumstances can impede the progress of a research student near to completion, where the institution is to blame. An extension time of 6 months that will assist in allowing buffer time to be dedicated to completing a thesis would benefit immensely where unexpected circumstances can create difficulty. At the same time, we do also wish to ensure standards in supervision and training are developed and maintained in order to improve the completion rate and enable the student to meet the necessary requirements.

Supply of women research students is low. We would urge for more evidence of research metrics as set by Roberts on promoting equality of opportunity in terms of transparent pay review, provision to ensure no tolerance of discrimination against women in the science and technology environment and means to encourage women right up to undergraduate level to continue and pursue their research interests. Constructive feedback mechanisms and engagement with women in science and technology is also encouraged to identify transparency in the recruitment and retention processes. This will largely involve reform of medieval human resources existent in many higher education institutions.

11. Do UK business leaders and managers have the necessary skills and knowledge to exploit new technology and research to maximum effect? Where are the areas of greatest weakness and opportunity in terms of sector size of enterprise and level of management? What can and should be done to bridge the gap?

Training in leadership, generic skills and communication of employees expectations in business is essential to enable students to identify their areas of weakness and the need for training, which they will show reluctance to undertake. Training courses in themselves will assist a great deal although not directly engage with their day to day tasks. It is essential to include progress monitoring and use of skills in their own research to identify where their skills are strengthened or still have room for improvement. Allowing this will assist in tailoring appropriate skills training to the needs of the individual student.