States of devolution and static friction

June 28, 1996

Anthony Cohen condemns the tidy-minded ethos of the Harris report and its especially baleful consequences for Scotland. The authors of the Harris report on postgraduate studies have quite missed the opportunity to make significant progress on issues that have required attention for years, to the detriment of the sector throughout the United Kingdom.

The report acknowledges certain issues as important, but barely discusses them. Issues such as fee-banding, to take account of the discrepancy between the research training support grant and research costs; the funding of postgraduate students; and the impact of mandatory research training and of the four-year completion regime on the standard of doctoral work.

The report also addresses its recommendations to the UK as a whole, yet in theory Scotland was not included in the enquiry, although some Scottish universities (including my own) made submissions to it. The consequences are especially baleful for the development of a distinctively Scottish postgraduate system.

This is a political document which is only incidentally about postgraduate studies; its real concern is the arcane argument over the future of quality assurance.

The committee has attempted to pre-empt this dispute by treating its outcome as a foregone conclusion - the creation of an all-UK agency. It proposes a UK-wide system of registration under which institutions would be accredited to offer various kinds of postgraduate education, subject to annual scrutiny and validation by a single quality agency. This would flatten out the policy differences among the various funding councils to allow a uniform degree nomenclature, and the Scottish four-year honours degree would almost certainly have to lose its masters standing. At its heart would be not the substance of postgraduate education but its forms, and how closely they fit with the typological criteria that would form the basis of the proposed "Postgraduate Directory".

The report has exploited the absence of proposals for an independent quality agency in Scotland. However, the Scottish principals certainly realise, as the committee may not, that the likelihood of devolution following the general election makes the probable life of a UK agency so brief as to be quite implausible.

We should applaud the Harris committee for its concern with standards, and welcome the proposals to separate undergraduate and taught postgraduate funded numbers, and to introduce funded numbers for postgraduate research. These changes are urgent and long-overdue.

But these are largely vacuous proposals because they avoid the crucial financial issues. The report asks the funding councils not to increase support for postgraduate studies at the cost of undergraduate education. It gives institutions responsibility for allocating budgets, and asks them to increase the financial support they offer to postgraduate students in the forms of studentships and fee reductions. Without any indication of where enhanced resources are to be found, these aspirations are merely pious.

It may well have been politically prudent for the Harris committee to assume that the funding councils are in a "zero-sum situation". It is precisely in order to cope with this prospect of static or, in real terms, declining resource that Scottish universities will have to examine the possibilities of inter-institutional collaboration at the postgraduate level. That way they could continue to be able to recruit first-class applicants, and to exploit and build on the distinctive basis of the four-year degree.

Post-devolution collaboration will become even more imperative when the onerous job of finding an adequate higher education budget will move from the Scottish Office to the Edinburgh parliament. And it is difficult to see how a distinctive system could be constructed if it is to be answerable to an accrediting institution based in Swindon or London and dominated numerically by the English universities.

Setting aside the devolution issue, why should the Scottish universities wish to become complicit in the dull uniformity of a UK-wide system which would take as its norm the specialised three-year degree, rather than the more broadly based four-year Scottish degree?

The Scottish degree has an obvious implication for postgraduate study, in that the fourth year makes it possible to build a significant research element into honours teaching, providing a more advanced basis for postgraduate research, as is done already by a wide range of disciplines and departments in the older Scottish universities.

Incidentally, it seems likely that only the longer-established institutions would be able to meet the restrictive conditions of the funding selectivity that Harris proposes for postgraduate research.

We routinely assume that the Scottish degree really is different from those taught elsewhere in the UK. Why should we not aspire, then, to continue to develop in Scotland a distinctive postgraduate education within funding and quality systems based in Scotland, giving ourselves the opportunity to deal with those fundamental issues which are so comprehensively ducked in the Harris report?

Anthony P. Cohen is professor of social anthropology at the University of Edinburgh, and convener-elect of the Scottish Forum for Graduate Education.

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