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Comments of The Biochemical Society on the Review of Postgraduate Education (Harris Review)

A panel chaired by Professor Martin Harris published a review of Higher Education in the UK that was commissioned by Funding Councils, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the Standing Conference of Principals, during May 1996. The Biochemical Society submitted the comments below on the review to HEFCE and CVCP.

The Biochemical Society considers that this report is thorough, and well argued and presented. The Society would support enthusiastically its major conclusions, albeit with some provisos on the mechanism for Departments to qualify for HEFCE funding of research students, as outlined below.

The report stresses throughout the importance of maintaining quality in teaching of both undergraduate and postgraduate students. Whilst it was not the purpose of the report to comment upon the volume of funding required to ensure this, and indeed, the report refers such matters for consideration by the Dearing Inquiry into Higher Education, nevertheless the Biochemical Society considers that this must be addressed in commenting upon the report. The decrease by one third in funding per student since 1989 and the planned 50% reduction in capital funding over the next three years must inevitably affect the quality of higher education. Of particular concern to a laboratory-based discipline such as Biochemistry, where both equipment and reagents are expensive, is the current poor state of much teaching and research equipment within universities, as identified in the recent report commissioned by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and three Funding Councils. The proposed reduction in capital funding can only exacerbate that problem.

The following are the Society's comments on the main recommendations of the report:

National needs

  • The Society supports the view that provision of postgraduate education, either as a chronological follow-on from a first degree, or as part of lifelong learning, will play an important part in developing the wealth-creating potential of the nation, but will also contribute to the quality of life of the nation as a whole and to that of the individual students.
  • The Society would reinforce the view that if the system cannot deliver greater quantity of postgraduate education and maintain quality, then the latter must take priority.

Quality and Standards

  • The Society strongly supports the establishment of a typology of postgraduate courses on the model proposed in the report so as to clarify for students, employers and funding bodies what is being provided in a particular course. Such a typology is necessary to enable course teaching and course output to be audited effectively and standards assured. The Biochemical Society has been involved in discussions organised by HEFCE on the functioning of the proposed single quality agency and would wish to participate in auditing courses in the Molecular Life Sciences, and in monitoring standards.
  • The Society recognises the need for quality assessment reports being provided separately for undergraduate and postgraduate taught provision, but would urge that the mechanism should not place a significantly greater administrative burden on individual institutions.
  • The Society strongly supports the recommendation that universities should adhere to a code of practice for postgraduate research students defining standards to be assured for training, supervision, monitoring and assessment of the student, and for research facilities and infrastructure; and that adherence to the code should be audited.

Funding of Postgraduate Education

  • The Society supports the comment that if high quality in postgraduate education is to be sustained then it is imperative that public funds are available to ensure an effective system of undergraduate education, so as to deliver adequate numbers of graduate students of an appropriate quality.
  • The Society supports the recommendation of separate funding cells for undergraduate and postgraduate students in order to prevent individual institutions "playing the system" by using block funding interchangeably, to the detriment of one or the other, or both, cohorts of students.
  • The Society urges that in adopting a policy of convergence in the rate of funding of apparently similar postgraduate taught courses in different institutions HEFCE should include among its criteria for attracting extra funding the particular quality of a course and value added to the student, and justifiable reasons for a course being more expensive to deliver.
  • The Society agrees that the number of postgraduate taught students at any institution should not be capped, thus allowing expansion within the block grant where that institution is prepared to reduce the unit of resource per student, or where it can secure additional external funding. The important principle is that an elected reduction in the average unit of funding by an individual institution should not affect the funding of others by being seen as an "efficiency gain".
  • The Society supports the recommendation that postgraduate research students should only be funded by HEFCE in Departments having a pervasive research culture and which can deliver excellence in research education. Among senior members of the Biochemical Society consulted there was some concern about the position of small groups of talented researchers in Departments of post-1992 universities, in particular, that may not yet have achieved RAE 3 ranking. The Society considers it essential that DevR funding continues to be available to encourage collaboration between such small groups of excellent researchers, so creating groupings better equipped to perform innovative research, compete for grants, and demonstrate the infrastructure necessary to train research students. Such groupings, that can supply quality research supervision, should not be discriminated against in the funding of research students. The Society believes that there should be a breadth of choice for the research student and does not support the concept of a small number of elite research universities, as the Secretary of State for Education is reported to have recommended recently to the Dearing Inquiry. In broader terms, the future method of funding research needs to leave it possible for able Departments to develop so that there can be change in Departments meeting the criteria for receiving funded research students.

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