Watchdog attacks quality plan

July 4, 2003

The government's red-tape watchdog has attacked funding chiefs' plans for a set of minimum standards designed to boost the quality of postgraduate research.

In a letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, seen by The THES, the Better Regulation Review Group warns that proposals to set and monitor minimum "threshold standards" for research degree programmes are likely to add additional and unnecessary regulatory burdens to the over-stretched university sector, without clear justification.

The letter, signed by group chair and Warwick University vice-chancellor David VandeLinde, warns that the objectives of the planned regulations are so unclear that the review group cannot work out if the plans meet any of the five principles of good regulation laid down by Whitehall.

"Overall, it is fair to say we find the paper very unsatisfactory with respect to the five principles of good regulation," Professor VandeLinde says.

Hefce, on behalf of the four UK funding councils, published a set of 13 core standards for postgraduate research earlier this year, after a review prompted by criticism raised in Sir Gareth Roberts' report for the Treasury on the supply of UK scientists.

Hefce said that "all higher education institutions in receipt of funding for postgraduate training should comply" with the standards, which covered six key areas including admissions criteria, supervisory arrangements, progression and the general research environment.

But on March 25, Professor VandeLinde wrote to Hefce, seeking reassurance that it would meet the five principles of good regulation: transparency, accountability, consistency, proportionality and targeting.

He says in the letter: "In particular we are concerned that the objectives underpinning the regulation are not immediately transparent; the detailed nature of the regulation may be out of proportion to the risk - but this is difficult to judge without an understanding of the objectives underpinning the regulation and the costs of implementing it."

He says that the consultation paper fails to explain "which other less prescriptive, regulatory options might be available to achieve the desired outcomes, whatever they may be".

A Hefce spokesman said that a second wave of consultation had been introduced since the group's submission, and would run until the end of September. "We will not discuss individual submissions to the consultation, but we will take it all on board. When the final results are published in the autumn we can see how this issue has been taken on board."

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