Budget statement’s £100m boost for industry-university collaboration good news’ – Universities UK

Professor Tony Fell, University of Bradford, reviews the 2012 Summer Conference in Birmingham 

Budget statement’s £100m boost for industry-university collaboration good news’ – Universities UK

The faded splendour of the Burlington Hotel was the elegant setting for one of the most topical themes ever discussed at a Summer Conference – against the backdrop of major uncertainties in the future funding of PG education – and the certainty that Government policies will promote structural changes in the direction of travel. Given the need to strengthen postgraduate skills in the workforce to meet the economic and transformational challenges of the Information Society” advocated by the EC, Reshaping the Future Postgraduate Sector” focused on a range of issues covering the reputation, quality, completion rates, funding issues and employability of doctoral candidates in the UK – in addition to an update and vigorous debate on the Higher Education Commission’s Inquiry into Postgraduate Education”, on issues that will shape the future PG sector.

Professor Geoff Whitty (HEC Member) presented a succinct commentary on work in progress on the HEC Inquiry – due to report in Autumn 2011. He noted the unexpected strength of some employers’ submissions criticising the quality of the British doctorate, relative to best international standards. This was coupled with concerns from key respondents (including some VCs) that doctoral training in the UK was too narrowly focused to meet the wider requirements of employment outside academia, notwithstanding the impact of well established Roberts’ skills training programmes throughout the UK.

Neil Viner of the EPSRC echoed these views, predicting that employability skills of PhD students would have to be strengthened by Research Councils, for example through their Doctoral Training Centres. Speaking as an HEC Inquiry member, Dr Roberta Blackman-Woods, MP, supported the view that doctoral training programmes contributed substantially to a very broad spectrum of industrial, business and related employers – in addition to scholarly research in academia. As a former academic herself, she pointed out that the value-added of a British PhD was a recurring theme for discussion in the All-Party Parliamentary University Group that she chairs. This issue would now be on the HEC Inquiry agenda, together with the need for strengthening the essential input of potential employers across the interface with academia.

Professor Whitty reported that funding of PG research and PG taught programmes would also be on the agenda, including the impact of the new undergraduate funding model as regards the recruitment and sustainability of PG education, plus proposals to extend financial loan support to the PG sector.

Two parallel Workshops led by Professor Whitty, Dr Blackman-Woods and HEC representatives explored issues in PG research and PG taught programmes – inviting Conference to make a direct input into the Commission’s final deliberations, a constructive gesture much appreciated by the more than 80 delegates present. Many topics were identified, including:

(a) Evidence for the quality of the British PhD, based on a recent independent report concluding that the international quality of publications from UK doctoral training and research programmes is rated more highly than that in the rest of the world.

(b) Many advocated the intrinsic value conferred by the flexibility of the British doctorate – encompassing the traditional PhD” and, for example, the Professional or Practice-based Doctorate” focused on the developmental needs of candidates in the work-place – although HEC members noted the need to clarify the nature and quality of professional doctorates in the international context.

© Delegates impressed on HEC members the pivotal role played by taught Masters (and to a lesser extent research Masters) programmes in strengthening the pool of well qualified UK, EU-based and overseas recruits for UK doctoral programmes.

(d) Delegates stressed the need to strengthen the framework for sustainable funding for taught Masters programmes and for alternative funding strategies for doctoral programmes – based, perhaps, on loans underpinned by Government.

The broadly based conference programme included a scene-setting overview by new UKCGE Chair, Professor Mick Fuller (Plymouth University) putting into context the diversity of PG research provision, patterns and trends of institutional PG numbers in the UK, the role of Graduate Schools and the quality of PG programmes compared with those in Europe and beyond.

The differential funding of STEM-based research and the less well supported Arts and Humanities was underlined by Professor Rosemary Deem (Royal Holloway, London). She called for recognition of the vital role played by PG taught programmes for strengthening skills in the work-place, a rebalancing of the STEM-bias in research funding – and the need for Government to appreciate the unintended consequences on sustainability of PG programmes flowing from restructuring the undergraduate support system.

HEFCE policy on future PG funding was reviewed by Emma Creasey, who reported new band limits from 2013–14, the implications for full- and part-time registrations and progress on widening participation and fair access. Louisa Green (LSE) presented a fascinating case study on managing the reputational impact of research funding secured from politically sensitive sources in Ghadaffi’s Libya and the ethical implications. Quality issues for doctoral standards implemented by a Graduate School structure were reviewed by Professor Alan Green (University of Greenwich). Another aspect of PG quality was illustrated by Professor Vian Ahmed’s report on a doctoral tracking system and its impact on PG completion rates at the University of Salford. Also on the quality theme, the major implications for research degrees following the recent launch of the QAA Code (Section B11), replacing the widely respected Code of Practice for Research Degrees (2004), were elegantly clarified by Janet Bohrer (Assistant Director, QAA) and the lead-author Gill Clark (University of Oxford and UKCGE Vice-Chair).

Short contributed presentations selected from 6 Universities and organisations formed a welcome innovation at this Conference – featuring Professor Sharon Huttly on experience in globalising training for PG training programmes (London School of Tropical Hygiene), Dr Anne Lee and Professor Pam Denicolo (Universities of Reading and Surrey) evaluating international PG issues in Australia, Sweden, Estonia and the UK and Jane Penrose (Postgraduate Studentships UK) giving hints on the marketing of PG programmes. Professor Claire Pickles presented a strategic on-line approach for successfully establishing a professional doctorate in education with large cohorts (University of Liverpool). Finally, innovative approaches for managing PG progression were discussed by Dr Lauren Summers and Davina Whitnall (University of Manchester) and Alison Mitchell (Vitae) reviewed the evaluation of PG Careers.

The overwhelming consensus in response to these selected contributions was that more opportunities should be scheduled at UKCGE meetings in future – so that the rich experience of our 120+ member institutions and supporters may be shared more widely. The months and years ahead will reveal how the recommendations of the HEC Inquiry impact on the direction of Government policy for taught and research-based PG programmes – and how Institutions respond to maximise equality of opportunity while strengthening the quality of the PG student experience.