Debt-hit postgrads seek golden hellos

September 19, 1997

POSTGRADUATES want institutions or research councils to offer "golden hellos" to stop students abandoning academic study because of high debts. They say moves to charge undergraduates tuition fees could land postgraduates with debts of Pounds 30,000 by the time they leave university, thus deterring people from poorer backgrounds.

Delegates to the National Postgraduate Committee annual conference in Edinburgh last week also called for income-contingent loans to be extended to postgraduates. But they want to ensure availability of loans does not affect the number of scholarships offered to students by research councils or universities. They have demanded further consultation on the issue.

Most delegates said they were prepared to run up debts so long as everyone had access to a loan scheme and so long as they retained the academic freedom to take the PhD of their choice.

"Everything in Dearing that affects undergraduates has a knock-on effect on postgraduates," said Ewan Gillon, former NPC general secretary and a member of the Dearing working report on research.

"It will mean students coming out with a Pounds 30,000 debt after a postgraduate degree. There will naturally be a bias towards careers leading to money rather than an academic career."

He warned that, without enough extra resources, plans to extend the higher education sector could put extra pressure on postgraduate teaching loads.

Delegates called for the Institute of Teaching and Learning, proposed by Dearing to include work on postgraduate teaching.

They welcomed plans for an Arts and Humanities Research Council, which should mean more money for humanities research. But they had strong reservations about Dearing's proposals for poor-scoring departments to opt out of the research assessment exercise.

Students were concerned that a research degree from an opted-out department would be devalued - a disadvantage in the jobs market. They also feared departments would be unwilling to take on postgraduate research students if they no longer received money for them.

But the "cheekiest and most arrogant" aspect of the report was the demand that postgraduates should be able to demonstrate general skills, such as communication and information technology, not directly related to their Phd. Mr Gillon said this was an extra demand on students without the offer of extra resources or time.

* The new Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education will produce a code of practice for postgraduate research by the end of the month.

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