Skip to main contentCambridge University Reporter

No 6236

Wednesday 28 September 2011

Vol cxlii No 1

pp. 1–31

Report of Discussion

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

A special Discussion was held in the Senate-House. The Vice-Chancellor was presiding, with the Registrary’s deputy, the Senior Proctor, a Pro-Proctor, and twelve other persons present.

The following topic was discussed:

The conclusion of consultation on the Government’s Higher Education White Paper (Reporter, 2010–11, p. 987).

Professor D. M. Thompson (Emeritus Professor of Modern Church History):

Vice-Chancellor, it is a sound principle that if people are to be put in the driving seat, they should know how to drive; otherwise they are expected to have L-plates on their vehicle. In this White Paper, we are presented with a kaleidoscope of images, including more level playing-fields than I judge previous administrations to have closed in schools, but the underlying content from the point of view of a university education as hitherto understood is scandalously thread-bare. Moreover, the confusion between the appropriate use of ‘will’ and ‘shall’ in the first person singular or plural is manifest in a document which one might have expected to be an advertisement for literacy. (If any are inclined to give the authors the benefit of the doubt on this point, let them examine paragraph 6.16, where ‘will’ is used for the first person and third person in nearly consecutive sentences with the clear implication that the intended sense is the same.)

However, there is not enough time today to scoff; it is more important to address some of the issues the White Paper raises for the University, and the particular Faculties within it. I wish to speak from my perspective as Chair of the Governing Council of the Cambridge Theological Federation with particular reference to some of its implications for training for the ministry of the Churches in this country, and indeed further afield. It may not be generally realized in the University that in Cambridge we have the largest group of students training for the Christian ministry in England and Wales, and probably in the UK, a very significant proportion of whom undertake courses through the Faculty of Divinity. (Others take courses validated by Anglia Ruskin University.)

For these students, the kind of economic analysis offered in chapter 1 of the White Paper, which assumes that the motivation for attending university is to improve one’s economic chances, is totally inapplicable. It is the Churches and the wider communities in which the students will serve who are the beneficiaries of their education; and since the White Paper makes it clear that the community as a whole is now abdicating all responsibility for payment for their courses, this financial burden will now fall directly on the Churches. The level of fees will be tripled (both here and at Anglia Ruskin), and since the ELQ provisions of the last government made many such students ineligible for loans, the sums will have to be paid up-front. Doubtless there will be some – perhaps many – among us, who will have no qualms about this and may even be glad; I do not wish to enter that discussion now. But the policy and its consequences are not easily compatible with the recognition by both the present and the previous governments of the role of clergy and ministers, both Christian and those of other faiths, in building community cohesion in problematic urban situations, and the similar recognition at a local level of the significance of this in planning for new housing developments.

There are two technical questions related to this, which it might be helpful for the University to investigate, though I do not hold out much hope. One arises from the discussion of what are called ‘bespoke employer closed courses’ in chapter 3 of the White Paper, where I wonder whether the B.Th. Degree might qualify under this heading and therefore be exempt from current entrant controls. This will obviously not save the Churches any money, but it might have advantages for the University. I don’t know. The other comes in the Consultation Document on the new Regulatory Framework, where there is reference to ‘teaching funding for those areas and activities deemed to be high cost and/or public policy priorities’ (paragraph 3.2.9). Obviously teaching funding has been abolished for all humanities subjects in general; but how does one explore the possibility of broadening the definition of ‘public policy priorities’ – particularly, for example, in the light of this summer’s riots in several English cities?

The fundamental point I want to make is this. Although I accept the necessity for higher student fees as a defensive reaction on the part of universities to governments, both past and present, which seem to be fundamentally anti-intellectual in their policy pronouncements, I would warn against our simply relapsing into the pre-1919 mode of financial hand-to-mouth existence that characterized the early twentieth-century University. In relation to students from the Theological Federation in particular, we could do more to minimize the internal fee burden, which our current structures create in requiring all candidates for University degrees to be members of a Cambridge College as well as their Theological College. I hope too that it will be possible for such students to be eligible, if they are reading for Cambridge degrees, for such University bursary funding as might be made available.

But we need also to take a longer view. When the previous government announced its new policy on Equivalent and Lower Qualifications four or five years ago, I wrote a Risk Analysis for the Faculty Board of Divinity, in which I set out what I judged to be plausible consequential reductions in student numbers both for the Tripos and the B.Th. – 10% in the Tripos and over 50% in the B.Th. – pointing out both the consequences for the reduction of academic staff and the entering of a downward academic spiral as the range of options in the Tripos had to be contracted, reducing their attractiveness to students who had no intention of entering the Christian ministry, leading to further contraction, etc. Some of my colleagues seemed to be surprised by my paper, perhaps particularly because as a Faculty we have probably done more than any other humanities Faculty in the last twenty years to raise outside funding for new posts. I pay tribute to the work done in the Central Administration to ease the direct burden which was then anticipated, whilst also noting that we are only just entering the period when those changes become effective. The scope of what the Theological Colleges can do in bringing international students to this country from Africa has already been affected by the immigration policies of the last and present governments, which are a direct threat to our status as an international university. I wonder how many other Faculties are doing a similar risk analysis in relation to the ways in which they in particular may be affected. Although we can all take pride in being judged the best university in the world, as suggested by the latest QS rankings, we are bound to wonder how long this can last under the increasingly tightening noose being drawn around our neck by hostile government policy.

I have spoken about the needs of a particular area of the University’s life; it may be unique, as all subject specialisms are, but it is not alone. I urge the Council and the General Board to produce a far-reaching plan to address the new situation in which we find ourselves, rather than responding only to the Government. I judge that this would require at least a Special Committee of both the Council and the Board; in former times it would have been thought worthy of a Syndicate. The Regent House would welcome some assurance that those charged with the direction of our affairs will not be content with re-arranging the deckchairs.

Professor G. R. Evans (Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History):

Mr Vice-Chancellor, BIS is certainly keeping higher education busy this summer. On 4 August, on the heels of the White Paper of 28 July, appeared a ‘technical consultation’. Any response to the White Paper must now take that document into consideration. For here, in some detail, are the plans for the implementation in new legislation of a new overarching structure.

Cambridge’s first concern in its response to these two documents must be to protect its future autonomy. It will wish to remain free to be itself. But I hope it will also give a thought to the wider ‘sector’, for Oxford and Cambridge surely have a duty to use their strong position and high reputation in the defence of that wider good, when they publicly state a view on the broad changes of principle and practice being proposed. It is not putting it too strongly to suggest that the shifting of the tectonic plates now proposed in these two consultations will imperil the essential defence institutional autonomy provides against state micro­­-management of higher education.

I believe that HEFCE is handling its discussion with BIS and the Minister and the Secretary of State robustly and using its best endeavours to defend institutional autonomy (on which academic freedom ultimately depends). But academe must add its voice.

Presumptions relied on in the White Paper seem often to depend on anecdotal evidence. I have heard it admitted in defence of particular White Paper proposals that they have been based on a chance remark in an office in Whitehall about something a student son or daughter or neighbour’s child had grumblingly complained about in his or her ‘student experience’. Another anecdote relayed in an office at BIS on another day might have thrown up quite different anxieties to be reflected in forthcoming legislation.

One of the proposals is to move to a ‘risk-based’ quality assurance régime, in which trusted institutions would be visited less frequently (‘risk-based approaches are intended to enable lighter touch arrangements for high-performing providers and proportionate monitoring’, 2.2.1). David Willetts mentioned in my hearing at the Westminster Education Forum Keynote Seminar on 26 July that this notion that some institutions can be trusted more than others had been prompted by Cambridge. Cambridge (who, on what authority?) had written to complain that it scarcely needed QAA institutional audit visits as often as lesser institutions might. A number of ‘recommendations for action’ were made when Cambridge was last audited.1 So Cambridge was evidently not found to be above reproach that time. Yet a major policy-shift rests on the accident of a well-timed letter which was, it seems, not followed up by a civil servant checking the evidence and saying ‘No, Minister’.

Defending institutional autonomy does not mean freeing institutions from accountability. Institutional autonomy has flourished in a climate of civilized conversation with the ‘sector bodies’. This has been the customary way, with the sector bodies, including HEFCE, using a light touch, working with miscreant institutions to get them to do better, put right their mistakes, and ensure they do not make them again. When the QAA made its recommendations for improvement, Cambridge set about responding to them and putting right what needed to be put right.

The assumption of the White Paper and the ‘technical consultation’ is that higher education ‘providers’ will behave properly only under threat; that if they get something wrong they should be punished. This is a radical change, which could end this civilized and respectful practice.

HEFCE’s new sanctions

HEFCE’s existing ‘condition of grant’ sanction, rarely used and rarely needing to be used, will be of little use in a future where the block grant for teaching is disappearing (and remember the White Paper Plan is to get rid of what remains as fast as possible). So the new idea is to bring to heel unsatisfactory ‘providers’:

• by removing their students’ right to access a loan;

• by taking away their ‘designation’ for that purpose;

• by fining them or making them pay compensation or naming and shaming them, or even, ultimately, removing their degree-awarding powers (yes, even Cambridge’s 800-year-old powers, so do watch out).2

The ‘provider’ is usually wrong and should be punished

The proposed move to ‘punishment mode’ fails to allow for a well-established pattern of institutional response, which the QAA described in 2008 as ‘gold-plating’.3 Institutions typically armour-plate themselves against potential sanctions, adding to their own administrative load and appointing extra managers to cope with it. I am sure some members of the UAS will admit privately to recognizing this response. The sight of a new HEFCE turned regulator is likely to prompt a massive rise in pre-emptive defensive activity. That will divert administrative thinking from learning lessons and changing the culture. It will be costly and burdensome and in the future those costs will have to come out of student fees.

It is of course possible that the attempt to enlarge the ‘sector’ to include, on a ‘level playing field’ and entering through a ‘single gateway’, further education colleges, small colleges, specialist and non-specialist; private provider, for-profit and not-for-profit; and entities such as EDEXCEL which do not teach but merely assess, will indeed bring with it a higher risk of institutional misbehaviour as BIS appears to think. But if the Government seriously wants this adventure into the unknown to succeed it should surely be aiming to help these ingenue educators learn how to ‘provide’ higher education. It is not going to be easy for a HEFCE set up as regulator on a punitive basis to foster in institutions a culture of listening to concerns in the expectation that they may prove to be helpful. Culture-change is always up-hill work. This will turn it into the task of Sisyphus (if that analogy will mean anything in a humanities-free future).

In a well-run sector, ‘providers’ would be glad to hear suggestions for improvement and would warm to them and respond positively. In practice, they tend to treat the raising of concerns as an attack on the institution and a personal attack on institutional managers. (Those who speak in this house should always remember how lucky they are to be able to express their views as strongly as they like without fear of reprisal.)

Let me give some brief examples from my case-work experience across the UK. ‘Upward’ appraisal of line-managers by those being managed is typically conducted, where it is conducted at all, by way of anonymous comment rather than the frank face-to-face process which takes place in ordinary appraisal. The underlings say they need protection from the reprisal they fear if critical comment can be laid at their personal doors.

Whistleblowers seeking to draw attention to misconduct in research often find themselves the subject of disciplinary processes. Short-term contract scientists and doctoral students are particularly vulnerable to consequences which can include the end of their research careers.

Elsewhere than here, I have known concerns raised internally under the Public Interest Disclosure procedure, or with the QAA under its causes for concern procedure, to lead directly to the suspension of the person raising concerns and the initiation of a disciplinary process leading to dismissal for ‘damaging the institution’s reputation’.

So why do I want to defend this imperfect system? I want it to change. Of course I do. But I want it to change from within and not under a rain of regulatory blows.

The new proposals (Technical Consultation 1.3) suggest that it is intended to make the raising of concerns about systemic problems and the making of disclosures still more difficult for those who spot them from below. The White Paper seeks to ‘engage’ students and encourage their ‘feedback’ and also their complaints if they are not satisfied (3.1). It supports the idea of Student Charters and envisages their becoming ‘mandatory’ (3.4). A Charter is expected to include information for students on ‘what to do if expected standards are not met’ (3.4), which will also encourage complaints from students. But these personal complaints are not necessarily going to identify ‘systemic concerns’. Those are apparently expected to be spotted in future by HEFCE hovering above (Technical Consultation 1.3) or consulting with ‘stakeholders’ (1.3.3), not raised by those who actually work in institutions and have noticed something worrying.

HEFCE’s new duty

Another presumption in the White Paper and the Technical Consultation is that higher education is conducted solely for the good of students, and the student (being in future just a customer), is always right. A duty is to be imposed on HEFCE to work on this presumption by promoting (or ‘championing’) ‘the student interest’ (elsewhere the ‘collective student interest’), where appropriate through ‘promoting effective competition’ (Technical Consultation, 1.3).

Leaving to one side the important question of the research activities of universities and the multitude of collaborative activities in which they now engage at the instigation of a succession of recent governments, let me finally try to grasp this nettle.

The student is always right

It may not be politically correct to say so, but can I suggest that statistics indicate that student complaints are not always justified? Of the complaints reaching the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) which were found to be eligible, the OIA reported that in the last year:

20 per cent of Formal Decisions were either Justified (6 per cent) or Partly Justified (14 per cent) and 53 per cent were found to be Not Justified.4

Nor can it be taken for granted that student complaints are well-founded at the earliest stage, that is, when a ‘provider’ receives them.

Student priorities and perceptions will be affected by the fact that students are new to being students and many are very young (though not in some post-1992 institutions where 40% of the intake belongs to that class pretty much ignored in the White Paper and the Technical Consultation alike, who apply as mature students). Student expectations and declarations that they are disappointed will be influenced by international differences of cultural expectation and by what they are led to expect in the institution’s literature. The number of complaints is likely to grow spectacularly in the new world BIS plans to create and under this new ‘duty’ the legislation will impose on HEFCE.

Again this is likely to prove a perverse incentive to institutions to concentrate on staying out of trouble rather than challenging their students to learn in a manner appropriate to an undergraduate, with its unavoidable struggles and discomforts and painful self-discipline. What they should be doing about those complaints is appointing someone to make an early assessment, carry out a ‘reality check’, and then using mediation with an open-minded willingness to learn lessons. How will the dark shadow of a hovering HEFCE turned regulator encourage this sort of culture-change?

So may I suggest that Cambridge should be sending BIS back to its drawing board, getting it to check its facts before relying on office gossip and above all urge it to take its time about changing the legislative framework to give effect to these new radical assumptions. For the only urgency arises from the removal of most of the block grant with its ‘conditions’ of grant, and its replacement with a vast taxpayer burden on the student loan book (preparatory of course to selling that off to some giant loan shark).


Dr S. J. Cowley (Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics):

Vice-Chancellor, the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival is one of the premier media studies lectures. This year it was given by Google’s executive chairman, Dr Eric Schmidt. His lecture ranged far and wide, and included comments on the British education system. He advocated bringing ‘arts and science back together’; he noted that while photography, TV, and computers were all British inventions, none of the world’s leading exponents in these subjects ‘are from the UK’; he observed that ‘the UK has stopped nurturing its polymaths. There’s been a drift to the humanities – engineering and science aren’t championed. Even worse, both sides seem to denigrate the other’.

His proposal for change was to ‘start at the beginning with education’. He identified a need to ‘reignite children’s passion for science, engineering and maths’ (although he possibly overlooked the ‘Brian Cox’ effect). He was ‘flabbergasted to learn that computer science isn’t taught as standard in UK schools’. At college level he emphasized that ‘the UK needs to provide more encouragement and opportunity for people to study science and engineering’, noting that in June, President Obama announced a programme to train 10,000 more engineers a year. His summary was that ‘if the UK’s creative businesses want to thrive in the digital future, you need people who understand all facets of it integrated from the very beginning’.

Against this challenge, how does the White Paper stand up? Does it provide encouragement, or the reverse, to study STEM?

I have not followed the White-Paper debate as closely as I should have done, but it seems to me that one of the untouchables, at least as far as the Russell Group universities are concerned, has been differential subject fees for Home students. My thesis is that such fees are inevitable, and that this is going to be even worse news for STEM than for many arts subjects.

Of course some universities are intending to introduce differential subject fees for Home students, and almost all universities have them for overseas students. If you include College fees (which are a variable feast), overseas fees in Cambridge are about £17,400 for most arts subjects and mathematics, £23,600 for STE, and £34,200 for medicine. (For completeness, architecture, geography, and music come in at £21,100.) I presume that this reflects costs, and I observe that for all subjects it’s far more than the flat-rate £9,000 that the University will charge Home students from 2012.

How much does the HEFCE think it costs to educate a Home undergraduate? The HEFCE splits subjects into four bands: bands D, C, B, and A. D includes most of the arts and humanities; C includes architecture, geography, mathematics, modern languages, and IT; B is STE (excluding IT); and A is medicine. In 2010–11,1 the HEFCE seemed to believe that universities could educate students in bands D, C, B, and A for £5,931, £7,116, £8,697, and £17,784 respectively.2 These figures really need to be adjusted for inflation. Unfortunately, from 1 August 2011, UUK is no longer producing the Higher Education Pay and Prices Index, and previous years have been withdrawn from the website (one wonders why). However, RPI was 5% in July 2011 (even CPI was 4.4%, for those who have been following the pension debate), and shows no sign of going down. It would not seem unreasonable to inflate the 2010–11 figures by 10% in order to estimate costs in 2012–13: and then you get £6,524, £7,828, £9,567, and £19,562. Note: they are all above £6,000.

At HMG’s behest, the HEFCE is zeroing funds for bands D and C, and has initially proposed a premium above band C of £1,500 for STE (that compares with my estimate of £1,739), and £10,000 for medicine (instead of £11,734). To stand still compared with 2010–11, universities such as Cambridge would have to charge £7,828 in mathematics, £8,067 in STE, and £9,562 in medicine. But this is before student support. HMG expects us to spend about a third of any fees above £6,000 on student support. This means that the stand-still costs would be £8,742 in mathematics, £9,041 in STE, and £11,343 in medicine. For the purposes of my argument, and given that we can charge no more than £9,000, let’s round all three to £9,000.

At this point of course somebody calls foul. Band D costs are only £6,786, and Cambridge will be charging £9,000. Surely this difference will make up for the loss of income for STE and medicine, and possibly also the lost funding for historic buildings, etc. And in some sense they might be right. Cambridge’s costs are so far above what the HEFCE thinks they should be, that even at a fee of £9,000, College and University endowments are still subsidizing arts and humanities students, and so it is possibly not unreasonable for Cambridge to charge a flat undergraduate fee (with the bottom line being that a greater share of the endowment will end up subsidizing STE and medicine students).

But what about other universities? Should we, as part of the wider academic community, not be concerned about the state of HE in the UK as a whole? Many other universities do not have endowments, or have far smaller ones than us. What will the money men be saying there? Are they going to run STE and medicine courses at an even greater potential loss? More importantly, what will the money women be saying in the private universities that HMG seems so keen to attract into the market? The White Paper states (see para 6.13) that only ‘not-for-profit institutions will, additionally, be able to access grants from HEFCE to fund those additional costs and public policy priorities that cannot be met by graduate contributions alone’. Private universities seem to be precluded from STE. So what will they concentrate on? Well, the obvious subjects seem to be law and business studies. What fees will they charge? Well, my guess is £6,000 or thereabouts (and a conversation I had at the weekend with somebody who is in a position to know suggests that this is not unreasonable).

So what choice will students have? In a couple of years’ time, you will probably be able to pay £18,000 in fees to get a three-year law or business degree. Alternatively, you will have to pay £36,000 in fees, i.e. double, to get a four-year STE degree. What is the public perception? Who is paid better? Lawyers or scientists? Businessmen or engineers? What will students, particularly risk-adverse students, choose?

I return to Dr Schmidt’s quote: ‘the UK needs to provide more encouragement and opportunity for people to study science and engineering’. Fat chance. The last Tory government dismantled much of manufacturing industry, but at least continued to educate those who might at some stage rebuild it, or ensure that the UK’s creative businesses thrive. The coalition has clearly decided that there is no need to continue to fund such education at a level that makes it attractive to Home students. Is it time for us to advise our children to turn out the lights and leave the country?


  • 1I have deliberately chosen 2010–11 rather than 2011–12, for which Her Majesty’s Government (HMG), through the HEFCE, has imposed cuts before inflation ranging from 3.9% for arts and humanities to 6.0% for medicine.

  • 2These figures are calculated from standard resource plus the student-fee income above the assumed student-fee income.

Mr G. H. Tully (CUSU President and student member of the Council):

Vice-Chancellor, the point that higher education policy, under this Government, has been enacted with dizzying incompetence has been made many times. However, in light of the proposals we are discussing today, it is worth making again. Clearly, the approach to higher education policy that was followed and is being followed by this Government is deeply objectionable. Dealing such a hugely damaging blow to the funding of our universities is completely unacceptable on its own terms, but dealing such a blow without an accompanying White Paper is not just bad policy. It is frankly stupid policy.

Yet after such protracted delay in devising their grand vision for the future of higher education, we might have hoped, however naively, that Government had realized it was quickly destroying a HE system it did not understand and that they might somehow find a way to pull back from the brink.

That hope has not been fulfilled. Though the White Paper contains a litany of ill-thought-out proposals, I will limit my remarks to two of the Government’s purported aims in higher education policy, and how its attempts to introduce a market into higher education fundamentally undermine them.

Let me begin by addressing the White Paper’s implication for widening participation. Government, even as it was tripling tuition fees, has always assured us that access to higher education was at the core of its approach. Indeed, the White Paper argues that in order ‘to help them identify individuals with the greatest potential, institutions may sometimes want to use contextual data . . . about applicants’. I agree, as the University does, that central to a fair admissions policy is looking at an individual’s whole potential, rather than just their A-Level grades.

However, the proposal to remove all 65,000 students achieving AAB or above from universities’ core allocation of students is designed to give an active incentive to top universities to recruit as many of these students as possible, using A-Level grades as their sole measure. But that creates an active disincentive for universities to use contextual data. It encourages universities to ignore the student from a poorer background on ABB in favour of the student with AAB, who looks better on paper, but may not be better overall. You can either have, it seems to me, a widening participation agenda and a fair and sensible admissions policy, or you can have unrestrained competition between top universities for students solely on the basis of A-Level grades. You cannot have both.

Moving on to a second objective of Government’s HE policy, David Willetts has often, albeit more hesitantly, spoken of his commitment to research. Certainly, the research budget has been more protected than the teaching budget, though it too will experience difficult and counterproductive cuts. We understand all too well that research is, alongside teaching, the lifeblood of any serious academic institution, and we are dismayed the Government has also chosen to ignore this important area of HE policy.

The second margin: the Government’s plan to introduce 20,000 students, to be competed for on the basis of price, will have deeply damaging consequences for research. The second margin is designed so that existing universities will compete for these students with private providers. Yet most existing universities have a significant research focus, even if they are not as research-intensive as the Russell Group. It is very hard to believe that new, private providers will have any such research function. By fostering such a market in which the basis of competition is solely upon undergraduate teaching, this White Paper will distort the market significantly against research. I believe the point we should be making to Government is that the undergraduate education area is not an isolated area, but that research and teaching are fundamentally integrated and interlinked within a university, and to hurt one is to hurt the other.

It seems unlikely that these points will impact Cambridge, at least directly. However, the academic health of Cambridge as a world-leading centre of teaching, learning, and research is also dependent on the health of the higher education sector at large. This is our opportunity, as a community of academics and students who understand how higher education works much better than our present Government does, to inform Government policy. I would strongly encourage other members of Council to raise these criticisms, and the criticisms that others have made, in formulating our final response.

I will end by briefly commenting on the supposed positive elements that Government expect to see as a result of a consumer-driven market in higher education. Students, it is hoped, will assess the quality of courses on offer to them, in much the same way as you might buy a new sofa or a fridge. And this will, magically, drive up the quality of our courses.

But a degree is not a product that can be bought or sold in this way. Students have wildly different motivations in choosing a university and choosing a degree, not all of which bear that much relation to the quality of the course. And what students want from their course varies dramatically from beginning to end, as a result of learning, teaching, and intellectual effort. It is this misguided reliance on the consumerization of higher education that undermines the White Paper’s entire argument. The student is not a consumer, a degree is not a product, and higher education is not and never can be a market.

Mr M. A. Wild (CUSU Education Officer and student member of the Council):

Vice-Chancellor, I would like to touch on how the White Paper addresses, or indeed fails to address, postgraduate students. Given the Government’s unilateral focus on undergraduate education, it is perhaps unsurprising that a White Paper titled ‘Students at the Heart of the System’ should tackle only undergraduate students; containing as it does only three, scant references to postgraduate student policy.

One reference is to the possibility of extending the National Student Survey to postgraduate taught courses which, whilst modestly valuable, is hardly a great contribution to higher education policy.

A second reference notes that we do not have the necessary data about the social background of postgraduates to confirm our suspicions that there are financial barriers which prevent some people from undertaking postgraduate study. Yet it makes no meaningful commitment to collect such data.

The White Paper’s final reference simply notes their decision to reduce postgraduate taught funding from 2012–13 in line with their reforms to funding for undergraduate education. However, while at least for undergraduate students, Government has proposed an alternative funding mechanism, unfair and damaging to students though it is, no such funding replacement will exist for postgraduate students.

Perhaps, given Government’s sustained attacks on both the funding and the structure of undergraduate education in the past year, postgraduate students should be relieved to have been let off so lightly. But it is untenable that postgraduate education, and particularly access to postgraduate education, continues to be so ignored, as it has been by successive governments.

In terms of social mobility and social justice, access to a first degree must always take first priority – for CUSU, for the University and the Colleges, and for Government. Access to a first degree is a transformational experience for students from the least advantaged backgrounds, and there is little point campaigning for access to a second or a third degree if students cannot even access a first.

However, access to postgraduate education is still an issue which we cannot just allow Government to ignore. Thirty per cent of postgraduate researchers receive no support towards tuition fees or living costs nationwide. Sixty per cent of taught postgraduates likewise receive no support1 – a proportion which we should expect to substantially increase once the cuts to PGT funding hit. Postgraduate education increasingly regulates access to many professions and highly skilled jobs,2 as well as, of course, access to further participation in the academic community. As funding, particularly for Master’s courses, becomes increasingly sparse, access to postgraduate education is not determined solely by academic merit, but also by ability to pay.

Postgraduate funding, and postgraduate policy in general, are issues that have been ignored by Government for too long. There may be relatively little we can do on a local level for some of these issues, constrained by limited resources as we are. But there is a national policy debate to be had about how many postgraduate students the sector should have, to what extent they should be funded, the mechanism for that funding, and whether these should be publicly-funded spaces or supported by a postgraduate loans system.

I would urge the other members of Council to express our strong dismay at the White Paper’s ignoring of postgraduate education and that the questions and issues surrounding postgraduate funding and policy should be seriously considered by Government.


Thank you very much indeed to those of you who have made the effort to come and to give their comments.

I would just remind people that the forum remains open1 so that people who wish to make their views known, friends, colleagues, and others who want the Council to take other views into account, should please utilize that means as well.