The Royal Society of Edinburgh is pleased to respond to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) on their support for Masters level training.

It is most timely for the EPSRC to review the provision of Masters level training given the current changes in the training scene, and the proposals are to be welcomed. In the past, instructional Masters courses have to some extent divided into two groups: (i) those courses which are used to achieve new expertise and knowledge in specialist fields or areas, and (ii) those courses which are simply a top-up for lower quality first degrees. The EPSRC should be selective in its support with the main emphasis going on the former, and on those courses which satisfy the needs of industry. Emphasis could also be given in establishing training in new technologies that seem likely to grow in importance, rather than well-established industries. Care would need to be taken in courses becoming too specific to an employer as to confine the job opportunities of the students and the relevance of the course.

This response has been compiled with the assistance of a number of Fellows with substantial experience of Masters level training programmes from across Scotland and the UK. The specific issues identified in the consultation document are addressed below:

  • The likely effectiveness of Training Packages and their compatibility with current university programmes.

The inclusion of industrial collaborators is an appropriate innovation, and course developers should be asked to state the relevance of the course to the needs of industry and to the UK in general (e.g. to Foresight). Currently successful MSc programmes, however, which presently support a strong demand from industry, may find their industrial user-sector unused to funding postgraduate study, or unwilling due to commercial pressures (especially SME’s). These programmes might then fail under the new approach. A sectoral approach could be taken, with important sectors under this category provided with fuller support in the first instance.

Although not operating precisely defined schemes, it is hoped that the Training Packages will continue and build upon the good practice of the Integrated Graduate Development Scheme, with particular emphasis on strategic topics and multidisciplinary activity. It would also be valuable to provide further guidance on the parameters regarded as most important within the three basic principles.

Proposals for Training Packages should favour interdisciplinary training, and the peer review of courses should involve input from industry and other end-users. When assessing the quality of the courses in addressing the needs of industry, consideration should be given to the teaching methods used. The industrial sector tends to be able to release employees for only short periods, meaning teaching methods will need to be focused, with an emphasis on the application of knowledge and acquiring techniques and procedures, 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 those delivering knowledge.

  • The suitability of the 5-year normal funding period.

It is appropriate that the EPSRC’s role should be to promote new courses in developing fields, rather than the provision of long term support. The length of the funding period should be such that university staff will have some confidence that the time spent developing Training Packages will be worth the effort and that the continuity of support is guaranteed for a reasonable period. A five-year time scale could achieve this. Any course that had not built up a user-base able to support the course after that time should have requests for extensions examined carefully, recognising, however, that student numbers inevitably fluctuate.

  • The preferred procedure for introducing the Packages as described in paragraph 12.

Given the departure from the current modes of support, piloting of the scheme would be advisable in the first instance, in order to gauge the level of collaboration from industry and any sectoral trends. The first option of a reduction of 25% across the board would allow this, and would seem to be the most time and cost effective, rather than reviewing all courses. It would also allow universities time to plan for the future.

  • The impact of flexibility in funding as suggested in paragraph 11.

The flexibility proposed is welcome in that it will allow universities and users to feel free to propose innovative training schemes and seek whatever funding they feel is necessary to cover the initial costs. Support should also be focused on the university course deliverer rather than to students, who would be expected to obtain funding from their employer. Direct student grant support should go to a smaller number of high quality students wishing to develop skills and knowledge in areas considered important on a national basis (e.g. on subjects identified through the Foresight exercise).

Further information is available from the Research Officer, Dr Marc Rands


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