Postgraduate Support Consultation
The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the Scottish Executive Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Department's consultation on postgraduate support. The RSE is Scotland’s premier Learned Society, comprising Fellows elected on the basis of their distinction, from the full range of academic disciplines, and from industry, commerce and the professions. This response has been compiled with the assistance of a number of Fellows with substantial experience of postgraduate education and training programmes from across Scotland and the UK.
The Society welcomes the Department's consultation on this issue. As we noted in our response to the Review of Postgraduate Education, the Society believes that it is in the interests of Scotland, its economy and its people that the Scottish Executive continues to support such courses. Its role should be to support both new graduates and mature students in their further training in high standing, relevant and innovative courses, and the support itself should be flexible and sensitive to changing employment patterns and economic needs. In addition, as we noted in our response to the Independent Committee of Inquiry into Student Finance, it will be important to ensure that continuing with postgraduate work after graduation is an attractive possibility for the ablest of our undergraduates. Coming after four years of relative poverty, the attraction of earning an income in many cases outweighs the prospect of further years of poverty.
The specific issues identified in the consultation document are addressed below:
Need For Change
Do you agree that the scheme should continue but be amended broadly as the Committee recommended?
The RSE supports the continuation of the scheme. With shortages in serious skills existing in various important sectors of the economy, postgraduate training is one route in providing and targeting manpower with the necessary advanced qualifications. However, support should also be considered for students enrolled on appropriate (vocational) 12-month MSc courses. Supporting only those on 9-month postgraduate diploma courses seems unnecessarily restrictive and precludes many high quality high-tech courses.
Does its recommendations meet the objectives of widening access to higher education and promoting a knowledge economy?
As noted in the Society's response to the Review of Postgraduate Education, access to postgraduate study would be encouraged through the growth of part-time courses. In addition to enabling participation from people with economic and domestic problems, part-time postgraduate courses also encourage interaction between local industry and local universities to mutual benefit. The Committee's recommendation to support part-time Postgraduate Student Awards Scheme (PSAS) students is therefore welcome.
With regard to the recommendation for income-contingent loans, however, given the financial pressures on students who have just completed a first degree, it is important that postgraduate study in priority areas is not seen as a luxury for those from better off families. Anything that discriminates against the less well off in this regard will restrict both employment opportunity and the availability of able employees to the knowledge- economy. The primary financial deterrent will relate to the inadequacy of the public support in the absence of additional income sources and that this is particularly a problem for mature students, lone parents, students from low-income families and those social groups with a cultural resistance to debt. One solution to removing this deterrent is the adoption of means-tested grants alongside long-term student loans, as opposed to income-contingent loans alone.
The Student Support Package
Should it be the case that those on a PSAS award should have their tuition fees paid for them?
The Society believes that students on PSAS awards should have their tuition fees paid for them to improve the skill base and also to support targeted areas of Scotland's knowledge economy.
If so, should the amount be brought in line with the PGCE and undergraduate levels i.e. £1,050?
The Society rejects the proposal that the amount should be brought into line with the PGCE and undergraduate levels. The level of fee should correspond to the form of teaching and the other resources involved. Postgraduate courses necessarily are taught to classes of smaller size than undergraduate classes and therefore enjoy lesseconomies of scale. They can also have a higher technology level requiring the acquisition and maintenance of more expensive equipment and the provision of maintenance and care in operation from appropriate technical staff. The fee should, therefore, be at postgraduate level where it is demonstrated that the mode of teaching and the laboratory work is at this level. If the students are being combined with a mix of undergraduate courses then the undergraduate fee might be appropriate. The fee could be assessed and banded in each case corresponding to the nature of the course, although this would be more administratively complex.
There is, however, a very clear link between the total resources available to an institution and the quality of its teaching and research. Throughout the 1990s, higher education expansion without a commensurate increase in funding has driven down the unit of teaching resource per student. This combined with the Bett Committee’s evidence suggesting that a greater investment will be required to recruit and retain the calibre of staff needed to deliver a high standard of education, as well as the enormous costs of IT, has produced a very fragile HE system. Whatever changes in student financial support are implemented, they must not result in a reduction in funding for higher education institutions if quality standards are to be maintained.
Should PSAS operate on the basis of the new undergraduate package which provides a mixture of both loans and means tested bursaries?
Given the limitation on the amount of available funding for the scheme the Society would support the adoption of a support package where the tuition fees were paid to institutions through SAAS, and maintenance payments to the student were made through means- tested grants alongside long-term student loans. One caveat, however, would be that thought should be given to the extent to which students undertaking such courses are independent of their parents. It could be argued that at a postgraduate level, means-testing should be based on the student's means and not those of his/her parents, as students in their early 20's should not be expected to look to parental support.
Can this be justified as targeting resource given these students have already entered HE and benefited from the earlier support to help them?
If postgraduate courses can be justified as providing value for society in the development of the knowledge economy or in providing essential extra skills through the PGCE programme, then funding is merited and resources should be released for this. Limitations should be based on the possession of appropriate academic levels by applicants and on the nature of the course in meeting the national needs.
Would reducing the numbers of those able to access more generous support be preferable to, say, offering a means tested loan only and potentially increasing the number of awards?
There are merits in supporting more students to benefit from postgraduate education to promote graduate employment and develop Scotland's knowledge economy. However, the availability of only a loan is likely to impact upon widening access from groups including mature students, lone parents, students from low-income families and those social groups with a cultural resistance to debt.
WHICH COURSES SHOULD AWARDS BE AVAILABLE FOR?
Should the current quota/non quota system be abolished?
Awards should be seen to be provided for courses of high standard and for subjects that meet economic or public needs. The allocating system should therefore be regularly reviewed to ensure that this is the case. In order to facilitate institutional planning and to ensure a measure of stability, there would be merit in the bidding cycle for 'non quota' or 'other' courses being at least three years.
If so, should this be replaced with more targeted awards?
Awards should be made in high standing, relevant and innovative courses and be flexible and sensitive to changing employment patterns and economic needs. In supporting the development of a knowledge-driven economy, it should be recognised that market demand can fluctuate enormously. It would, therefore, be beneficial to support as broad a coverage as funds allow. It should also be recognised that, while supporting a knowledge-driven economy does involve an investment in science and technology, the economy is sustained and developed by other areas, including the financial services and tourism. Investment should not, therefore, be limited to science and technology but be wide enough to support development in the national infrastructure, of which, for example, business, accountancy, journalism, languages and law are all necessary elements. Care should also be taken that the development of a knowledge-driven economy is not allowed to weaken the social and cultural base of Scotland and that there should be flexibility to allow the support of courses in developing areas of the social sciences, arts and humanities.
In supporting the development of the Knowledge Economy, is there a need to provide incentives for students to enter courses of particular priority; if so, how would these be identified and what incentives could be offered?
The Society believes there is a need to provide incentives for students to enter courses of particular priority. In Scotland there is a particular need for well-found postgraduate courses to encourage the best graduate engineers and technologists (who currently tend to enter employment directly after graduating) to continue with advanced study and research. These quality graduates with postgraduate qualifications are vital for the success of a knowledge-driven economy.
Employers, Scottish Enterprise and the HE sector would be appropriate bodies to consult in order to identify which courses are required. With regard to incentives, one solution would be for companies to provide financial support to postgraduate students. This has been recognised by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in its Master Training Packages programme in which the Council supports Master courses jointly with industry. However, in new technology areas (such as optoelectronics/photonics), where there is usually a lot of start-up and small company activity, such resources are not available from companies. In these areas the PSAS scheme could provide incentives aimed at increasing the numbers in training through increased non-repayable maintenance grants or through ‘distinction awards’, similar to those in Northern Ireland, to provide material inducements to postgraduate study in Scotland. In Northern Ireland these awards are split between institutions based on graduating class numbers, RAE results and any embargoes due to poor completion rates.
In responding to this inquiry the Society would like to draw attention to the following Royal Society of Edinburgh responses which are of relevance to this subject: National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (October 1996); Raising the Standard – White Paper on Education and Skills Development in Scotland (February 1997); Comments on the Recommendations of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (September 1997); Review of Postgraduate Education (February 1999); Funding for the Future: A Consultation on the Funding of Teaching (March 1999); and the Independent Committee of Inquiry into Student Finance (September 1999)