In the nine years that he has been part of the UK Council for Graduate Education, Mick Fuller has seen sweeping changes to postgraduate education.
But as he prepares to step down from his three-year stint as chair of the organisation, he expressed disappointment over the recent lack of joined-up policy for postgraduate provision.
He said that announcements for a loans scheme for postgraduate taught and PhD students made in the Autumn Statement and the Budget – the consultations for which end this week – lacked enough detail to make it possible to judge how the policy is going to work.
“[They] sound like soundbites to win an election rather than a true higher education policy,” he told Times Higher Education. “That is what disappoints me as there doesn’t seem to be a big joined-up comprehensive…policy.”
Professor Fuller, who is also head of the graduate school at Plymouth University, said he hoped that now that the general election and its associated “change paralysis” was over, policymakers would have a chance to reflect on how best to move forwards with postgraduate funding.
The outcomes of the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s Postgraduate Support Scheme pilots should play a part in this reflection.
The £25 million scheme, which ran projects in 20 universities from 2014, offered a test bed for new ways to support students progressing from undergraduate to postgraduate taught courses. Support ranged from funding mechanisms, such as credit unions, to courses closely linked to industry and initiatives to address the under-representation of certain groups in specific subjects.
It was subsequently followed by a top-up £50 million scholarship programme designed to support students who had paid £9,000 tuition fees at undergraduate level, ahead of the roll-out of the national loans scheme in 2016-17.
Professor Fuller said that there was a risk that when the master’s loans scheme comes in, course fees would be pushed up. In recent years, universities have “sat tight” on master’s fees, implementing only modest rises despite the fact that teaching funding from Hefce has been slowly squeezed and reduced to nothing for many subjects, he said.
Institutions resisted ramping up fees to meet costs because they knew that students could not afford to “work at McDonald’s and pay £11,000-£12,000” to study, he said. “If they put their fees up to an [economically viable] level, it would kill the postgraduate taught market immediately because about 90 per cent of people coming to [do it] were funding themselves,” he added.
“Many universities took their eye off postgraduate taught provision,” he went on, and instead turned their attention to the “meteoric change” to undergraduate fees. As a result, master’s courses have been the “forgotten pillar” of postgraduate education, he said.
Catalyst for change
This contrasts markedly with the situation in postgraduate research, where the UK has “led the world” over the time that Professor Fuller has been part of the UKCGE.
An influential 2003 report – SET for Success – by the late physicist Sir Gareth Roberts led to a funding boost for those entering PhD study, with it helping universities to increase their emphasis on researchers’ professional and personal development. For the first time, concentrating on a student’s research project was not enough, and it was recognised that other skills should play a part in training.
“That marked a real hive of activity in the postgraduate research agenda…There was lots of cash put into universities [and] there was an incentive for universities to think about this and deliver on it,” said Professor Fuller.
It was the “catalyst” for a series of subsequent changes, such as the creation of university graduate schools, which became responsible for administering the money and reporting on how the skills agenda was delivering.
“It marked a massive upsurge in meetings and discussions and a whole new series of jobs within universities…[It] has become firmly embedded within university structures,” he added.
This has been “revolutionary and copied across the world”, he said. These ideas are now being embedded at universities in Europe and Australia and are being considered in the US, where institutions have “fallen behind” on employability and generic skills, he added.
The UKCGE has played its part in this by bringing people together to discuss the issues at an increased number of workshops, meetings and conferences that universities had the money to send people on, he said.
Changes in the way that the research councils fund PhD students soon followed with the advent of doctoral training partnerships and centres for doctoral training. These have concentrated PhD training in a smaller number of institutions and developed students’ broader professional skills.
But although the programmes come with benefits, such as getting academics to think more widely about doctoral training and extending PhD funding from three to three and a half to four years, they still provide for only a minority of students, he explained.
Professor Fuller said 80 per cent of PhD students at UK universities are not funded by the research councils, so the “real challenge now” is to find ways to offer all students similar opportunities. Institutions also have to contribute to these centres with additional studentships, which usually come from Hefce’s quality-related research funding.
“Effectively what it is doing is dragging the universities to put their Hefce income into those minority doctoral training partnerships,” he said, adding that other subject areas may get “starved” of studentships.
As Professor Fuller embarks on his final co-opted year on the UKCGE executive committee, he said that he is also “suspicious” about one aspect that lies ahead for postgraduate research: chancellor George Osborne’s PhD loan system, which offers students the chance to borrow up to £25,000.
“I am a bit worried as to what is going to come out of the current discussion and the Paul Nurse investigation of the research councils, whether the dual-funding system [for PhDs] will be scrapped or whether it will be completely reviewed,” he said.
“Twenty-five thousand pounds for a PhD doesn’t even scratch the surface. It takes £75,000 to study for a PhD,” he said.