|Review of Postgraduate Education|
The Royal Society of Edinburgh is pleased to respond to the Scottish Office Education and Industry Department’s Review of Postgraduate Education. 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.
This review by the Scottish Office Education and Industry Department is particularly welcome as the need for taught postgraduate study shows no signs of abating, and indeed is likely to increase, especially in relation to courses in science, technology and engineering. In responding to this review, the Society has drawn upon its response to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council review of their support for Masters level training. The different issues identified in the consultation document are addressed below:
Government’s overarching priorities for higher education
Increasing and widening participation
In order to increase and widen participation in higher education, social barriers need to be overcome primarily at the first-degree stage. Consistent with the emphasis on lifelong learning, access to postgraduate study should 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. Adequate entry qualification is important to ensure that students are equipped to gain proper benefit from postgraduate courses. However, many students who have poor first degrees can mature with a few years work experience and return to succeed in taught postgraduate courses. For this reason, entry standards for mature students should not be solely judged by first degree class, but include consideration of subsequent performance in employment.
Possible mechanisms for supporting part-time postgraduate education could be through extending the current part-time fee waiver scheme to postgraduate study, extending the possibility of student loans to part-time postgraduate study, and providing grants to help meet the training needs of small companies which might otherwise be unable to fund such study. Courses which include distance learning would also help potential postgraduates working in more distant parts of Scotland.
Development of a knowledge driven economy
In the recent EPSRC review of its postgraduate training, it was recognised that public funding of this training was only a small proportion of the whole, with the sector being largely ‘market-led’. In its response the Society supported the emphasis of funding on areas where innovation was needed to meet anticipated future needs of industry, and we suggest that funding should be provided to promote new courses in developing fields, rather than simply providing support for long-running courses. Funding should also focus on courses acting as entry points to courses, or in furtherance within careers, and should not be used merely to upgrade a poor undergraduate degree or used as astepping stone to a Ph.D.
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, for 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.
It should also be noted that the change in Research Council postgraduate training funding arrangements will impact upon some existing Scottish M.Sc. courses, and whereas these courses might remain viable without EPSRC support, they would not be sustainable without Scottish Office funded students.
Principles of Postgraduate Review Committee
Parity of treatment between Scotland and the UK
Under the terms of reference, it is important that the review considers parity of treatment for students and universities within the UK as a whole, and takes account of movement of students both within the UK and within Europe.
Participation rate parity has normally slightly favoured Northern Ireland taught courses and students, in part due to a ‘distinction award’ aimed at retaining some of the best students within Northern Ireland. These awards were split between science and engineering, and the humanities (the ratios favouring science and engineering), and then split between institutions based on graduating class numbers, RAE results and any embargoes due to poor completion rates. 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. To address this problem, there would be merit in a ‘distinction award’, similar to that in Northern Ireland, to provide material inducements to postgraduate study in Scotland.
Any changes in postgraduate education in Scotland should also take account of potential loss of university staff to other areas in the UK, and consider the need to retain courses and expertise in Scotland for interaction both with Scottish industry and with Scottish social and cultural interests.
Value for money and cost effectiveness
It is critical that taught postgraduate courses are of a high standard, and student support should only be offered for courses where this is the case. External review of the quality of postgraduate taught courses every three years is important to approve such studies, and liaison with SHEFC on this matter of quality standards is critical.
When assessing the quality of the courses, consideration should be given to the teaching methods used. The industrial sector tends to be able to release employees for only short periods. This means that teaching methods will need to be focused, with an emphasis on the application of knowledge and acquiring techniques and procedures, as well as on the amount of theoretical knowledge itself. Similar importance should therefore be given to methods enhancing learning, such as through group exercises, formal presentations and group discussions, as to those methods merely delivering knowledge. Favour should also be given to interdisciplinary training and the appropriate use of information technology, and the peer review of courses should involve input from industry and other end-users.
Without adding unreasonably to the bureaucratic burden, there would also be merit in using course student employment rates as a factor determining the number of grants awarded, although taking care not to unfairly penalise new innovative courses.
Resources should be concentrated in the areas resulting in greatest public benefit
Cost effectiveness and public benefit are best served by responding to demand from well qualified candidates. However, direct support, such as through the provision of grant support for up to three years, should also go to pump-prime the development of skills and knowledge in areas considered important on a national basis. In this respect it is important that the priorities include the marine and terrestrial environments, which are of particular importance to Scotland, and areas of industry and commerce for which Scotland is especially noted.
Since the purpose of first degrees is to give a thorough basic education, they are unlikely to provide the specialist or vocational training needed for certain careers. Increasingly this gap is being filled by taught postgraduate courses. The Society believes that it is in the interests of Scotland, its economy and its people, that the Scottish Office 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.
Further information is available from the Research Officer, Dr Marc Rands