Critics miss graduate review point

November 29, 1996

THE TIME has come for me to be "rested" from the slot in the Times Higher Education Supplement to which I have become rather attached over the past few years. It is funny how sitting down on a Sunday evening every few weeks or so helps you to crystallise - in just 600 words - your thoughts on an issue of the moment, or indeed on some more substantial question facing our beleaguered sector. One thing I know for certain: those evenings will immediately be filled with other pressing matters.

It seems fitting to end by reflecting on some of the reactions to the review of postgraduate education which I chaired. One of the tasks I most enjoy is to work with groups of colleagues from inside and outside the sector who are seeking to analyse a set of complex issues and to recommend ways forward.

As one who believes passionately that adversarialism, whether in politics or in the legal system or indeed in the university world, virtually never serves to clarify or elucidate but usually to obfuscate or to inflame, I was delighted that we were able, in a spirit of give and take, to arrive at a report with which no member, I imagine, agreed totally but to which all were willing to subscribe.

When one completes any review of this kind, it always comes as something of a shock to rediscover that you have no more standing than anyone else in the consultation exercise which follows.

It is obvious from some of the letters and messages I have received proposing changes to one or more of our recommendations that not everyone understands this, and that the way forward now lies with the funding councils and with the vice chancellors and college principals.

It is nevertheless gratifying to learn on the grapevine that in respect of the overwhelming majority of our recommendations, discussion has not been about whether to implement them but how.

There are just two specific matters to which I would allude here. The first is the recommendation that quality research funding for postgraduate research students should be limited to departments rated 3 and above in the research assessment exercise. I now feel - setting aside cabinet responsibility at this point - that the proposal should perhaps have been more clearly focused.

It is clear that it satisfied neither the lobby preoccupied with the most cost-effective use of very expensive equipment - who found it too weak - nor the very large group of researchers, predominantly but by no means exclusively in humanities and social sciences, for whom a departmental research rating is not a suitable indicator of whether high-quality supervision and support is available.

I hope that the Higher Education Funding Council for England will bear in mind these very important caveats (along with all the others so carefully inserted in our report) as it decides how to distribute quality research cash from 1997/98 onwards. The debate on that recommendation was entirely to be expected. The other flurry took me wholly by surprise. Having gone to enormous lengths not to recommend the capping of postgraduate numbers, whether students on taught postgraduate courses or doing postgraduate research, despite various invitations to do so, it was puzzling to be taken to task for suggesting just that. I still do not really understand why this occurred but suspect that in the febrile atmosphere where the entire sector is so cruelly underfunded, an initial misreading on someone's part was later compounded by over-hasty reactions.

But I have had one particularly pleasant experience as a result of this review. I was invited to spend time in two universities that I had never visited before, to see for myself both how they are developing carefully targeted research programmes, and the quality assurance mechanisms they have in place for their graduate students.

Not for the first time I thought how distracting, and indeed counter-productive, it is when universities seek to demean what others are engaged in, rather than focusing all our attention on those who refuse to provide adequate funding for our staff, our facilities and our students.

Martin Harris is vice chancellor of the University of Manchester.

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