NPC/04/06/B: Department for Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland, Higher Education in Northern Ireland: A consultation on proposals to introduce variable deferred fees, access arrangements and a review of the student complaints system

by Tim Brown

Executive Summary

The National Postgraduate Committee is pleased to respond to this consultation on the future of higher education in Northern Ireland with respect to reforms from Westminster. While we identify the need to consider the extension of funding in Northern Ireland, we are still highly concerned that the interests of students including postgraduates are not given the priority and feel that if the example of the Department for Employment and Skills is followed (which has caused a large split in government) is not the solution for Northern Ireland. We strongly encourage alternatives to be sought and looked at under a devolved government, which can be an advantage as it has been seen in Scotland and Wales. We warmly welcome the introduction of an independent adjudicator although we seek further consultation on plans to implement this and ensure consistency with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator in England and Wales.

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. At present we have been building up our work within Northern Ireland and have been working closely with other organisations including the National Union of Students-Union of Students in Ireland.

1. Do you agree that additional funding is required to enable our higher education institutions to continue to provide education to the highest international standards?

We are in full agreement that additional funding is required in our higher education institutions. However, at the same time, we would stress the scale of the backlog of funding that has resulted in a significantly deprived higher education infrastructure. This goes from shortage of state of the art resources through to low pay of academic and research staff. Within Northern Ireland, the limited number of higher education institutions means that there is a need to sustain and maintain their infrastructure to stabilise the provision of higher education and support the local economy. Further to this, we are also in agreement that there is the need to maintain competitiveness with the rest of the UK and also have a place within the European and international market to gain further funding.

While we see the need for more funding, we also see that the real term costs of higher education will not be met by plans laid out in this consultation and we strongly believe funding in significant excess of this to overcome the long term backlog of funding will need to be provided from the public purse. We strongly push DELNI not to be directed by plans across the waters in England and Wales. The autonomy of DELNI like the Scottish Executive has the powers to form its own policy and manage its own economy, where there has been success in Scotland to re-introduce the maintenance grant and scrap tuition fees.

2. Do you agree that graduates, as beneficiaries of higher education should make an increased contribution towards the cost?

First of all we would ask how a graduate is benefiting from their higher education. By following the example of the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), it is assumed that they will benefit from this education after they earn a salary of 15,000, where they will begin repayments. It is arguable that this does not reflect a salary where a student has benefited from their education. We would urge DELNI to re-consider this factor and also the recommendations of the Cubie report [1] in Scotland where 25,000 is considered as a more suitable repayment threshold. We would not consider education to be of benefit unless more significant salaries were being earned and the level of skill in a certain profession is sufficient.

At the same time, however, there may be those who are in highly skilled employment as a result of their academic qualifications, yet they will not necessarily be earning significantly higher salaries compared to careers they may have found without an education. There is no doubt that this will occur in areas such as education, healthcare and the arts. However, all these graduates make a significant and important contribution to society, which the taxpayer will contribute to also. Those who benefit from their higher education in terms of their income will likewise be charged greater taxation and the majority of those earning higher salaries will have been through higher education. We strongly argue that those who are able to afford to contribute towards the local community should be contributing greater proportions.

Another important point we will add to this response is that there are also graduates who are beneficiaries to higher education in that they may wish to pursue postgraduate study and then even research. This will in turn make a significant contribution to higher education where the need for more postgraduate researchers has been endorsed by the Higher Education White Paper from the Roberts recommendations with increased funding stipends and at least 10 days of training per year for research students [2]. NPC is fully in support of these new initiatives but at the same time concerned about how graduates burdened by debt will continue to a research degree, or a Master level degree in between should they need to. Postgraduate funding for taught courses is limited, and NPC has investigated the lack of compatibility of the Career Development Loan (CDL) in England and Wales [3] with the repayment of a student loan under current proposals. In Northern Ireland, the CDL is not available and so a bank loan will have to be resorted to. This will make matters worse as the interest on the loan is not paid for while they are still studying as is the case with the CDL. NPC does not support the CDL since it is not income contingent and does not have any secure allowances for deferment of repayment should the student be unemployed upon completion of their course. Bank loans are therefore not acceptable and at the very least NPC requests to that both the DfES and the DELNI extend the student loan to postgraduates so their repayments are income contingent with clear regulations on repayment of the loan.

Further work NPC has undertaken and is pursuing is research that it has carried out on postgraduate funding from sponsorship of Graduate Prospects and the University of Warwick Students' Union [4], which includes the purpose of postgraduate education, the funding implications and obstacles to postgraduate study. We strongly encourage DELNI to address evidence from this report outlined in the executive summary. Further to this, we are lobbying regional development agencies to consider the funding of taught postgraduate courses that will assist in meeting the needs of regional economies by developing advanced cognitive thinking especially for those working in small to medium enterprises.

3. Do you agree that the fees should be variable (capped at 3,000), deferred and repaid through a graduate contribution scheme?

NPC is not in support of tuition fees, and further to this we see variability of fees a further detriment to higher education. This will open the doors to marketisation where higher education will be chosen based on what students can afford creating an elite tier of institutions while other institutions will only receive income from students not required to pay the full tuition fees. Within Northern Ireland this is a more serious issue with a select few higher education institutions, students could be drawn to choose a particular subject of study based on its affordability as there may not be a choice in terms of where they can undertake a particular course. Reducing popularity of some courses will therefore result in closing down of departments and a significant lack in supply of higher education within Northern Ireland.

NPC is highly concerned that where the cost of higher education will only be met in part by tuition fee proposals, the intake of international postgraduate students, where there is no hard limit on tuition fees, will increase as a mainstream source of income to higher education. We are strongly concerned that the plans for deferential, variable fees will not meet the long term demands in higher education and more radical alternatives should be sought.

4. Do you agree with our proposal to remove the requirement to pay tuition fees in advance?

We are certainly in agreement that to remove up-front fees is beneficial, however this does not bear any difference to continuation of studies in postgraduate education. In this instance, there will still be limits in terms of how burden of debt will hinder continuation to postgraduate education due to lack of compatibility of some funding streams available for postgraduate education.

5. Do you agree that the repayment threshold for loan and tuition fees should be raised to 15,000?

We certainly identify that the repayment threshold of 10,000 has been too low, although while 15,000 is an improvement, we still argue the recommendations put forward by Cubie [2] are required to help graduates and those who have completed postgraduate courses to make a better start. It is certainly not uncommon for graduate loans and loans for further study to be also taken out following graduation and in such instances, the further deferment of any graduate contribution will ease this difficulty. As we have already claimed, significant benefit from higher education does not occur at the recommended threshold of 15,000 and we strongly recommend this is improved.

6. Do you agree that, under variable fee arrangements, higher education institutions should be required to have university access agreements in place including bursaries?

We will not respond to this question as we do not feel it is within our remit as a charity to advance postgraduate education in the UK in the public interest.

7. Do you believe that we should establish and independent adjudicator to hear student complaints in Northern Ireland and end the jurisdiction of the Visitor scheme?

We are in full support of the plans to remove the medieval University Visitor system and introduce a fully impartial, transparent and consistent complaints system. For many years NPC has been campaigning endlessly over this issue [5] [6]. From our research carried out from about 8 years ago [7], there is evidence of the slow, informal, inconsistent, biased and non transparent complaints systems that existed across the UK, with many institutions that had no complaints procedure. The situation is even more concerning for research students, where the Visitor is more often dealing with such cases and failing to respond in a timely or professional manner. There are further serious cases raised in the courts for institutions where there is no Visitor.

Since the plans to introduce the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA), NPC has been in full support of this and influencing the means by which it is being implemented. There will certainly be a learning process involved with developing the OIA and there is also concern that there will be an unnecessarily large influx of complaints that could have more easily been dealt with internally. We certainly encourage the efforts of the OIA, however, to ensure consistency across the board in how complaints are handled but also to review over an institutions own internal complaints procedures as difficulties arise through complaints that go beyond the institution. It is hoped that in this process the volume of external complaints will consequently reduce.

NPC is fully in support of an independent adjudicator being introduced into Northern Ireland to cover specific matters locally and we wish to see a single autonomous office. We also request that it will maintain consistency as we have asked to be maintained with plans to extend the Scottish Ombudsman's role to student complaints in Scotland [8]. NPC Scotland did express some concern over the ability and scope of the Scottish Ombudsman to deal with student complaints in a consistent manner with that of the OIA [9]. Further to this, concern was expressed over the need to have an office under the Scottish Ombudsman dedicated to matters of student complaints in higher education that was also in close contact with the OIA to ensure consistency in how complaints were handled although they would apply differently under the Law of Scotland. We see this as equally applicable in Northern Ireland and would want to see that complaints are handled in a timely and efficient manner consistent with that across the waters.

We would strongly encourage further consultation on student complaints to ensure these and other necessary targets are met by the independent adjudicator in Northern Ireland and that internal complaints procedures in higher education institutions are improved accordingly. A further point is that we strongly urge for the independent adjudicator to be directed by a board which includes student representation to create a transparent system.

References

  1. Cubie Report, Publication from the Scottish Parliament, http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/S1/whats_happening/research/pdfresnotes/rn00-06.pdf
  2. Higher Education White Paper, Publication from the Department for Education and Skills, http://www.dfes.gov.uk/hegateway/uploads/White Pape.pdf.
  3. The future repayment of Career Development Loans with Student Loans, Online feature of the National Postgraduate Committee written by Tim Brown, http://www.npc.org.uk/page/1083759321.
  4. National survey of postgraduate funding and priorities, National Postgraduate Committee, http://www.npc.org.uk/page/1083342227.pdf.
  5. Complaints and Codes of Practice, Feature Article of the National Postgraduate Committee written by Don Staniford, http://www.npc.org.uk/page/893977200.
  6. UUK/SCOP Consultation on Independent Review of Student Complaints, Response by the National Postgraduate Committee, http://www.npc.org.uk/page/1031851268.
  7. D. Staniford, T. Brown, "Complaints in Practice: Complaints in Crisis", National Postgraduate Committee, 2003, http://www.npc.org.uk/page/1074001547.pdf.
  8. A new complaints landscape for further and higher education, Consultation from the Scottish Executive, http://www.scotland.gov.uk/library5/education/nclhec-00.asp.
  9. A new complaints landscape for further and higher education, Response by the National Postgraduate Committee, http://www.npc.org.uk/page/1080817438.