Research funds to be aimed at elite

The Harris report may lead to a two-tier postgraduate system.
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A two-tier university system, with an elite band of universities offering more expensive postgraduate courses and the rest concentrating on teaching, is the likely outcome of the review of postgraduate education published yesterday.

The Harris committee has recommended that funds for research students should be restricted to the better-performing university departments. It argues that the Higher Education Funding Council should no longer grant its research funds for students in departments that do not score Grade 3 or better in the Research Assessment Exercise.

Provision should be made, the report says, for supporting small departments, and excellent departments in universities not otherwise noted for their research. But the report talks of co-supervision and regional co-operation, which could indicate that a smaller number of institutions will admit the majority of research students.

Opposition is likely to be strongest in the former polytechnics, which are still building their research strengths. But some older universities with weak research departments will also be complaining.

The review, led by Professor Martin Harris, vice-chancellor of Manchester University, examined all aspects of postgraduate education in the light of its break-neck expansion. The number of postgraduate students has trebled since 1979 - it stood at 315,400 last year. Fewer than one in five are engaged in research. Most take courses to extend their first-degree knowledge or convert to another subject.

The review was commissioned jointly by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Standing Committee of Principals, and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals.

Professor Harris's work is significant for the future of higher education. Research students are the academics of tomorrow; taught postgraduate courses provide a vital preparation for research, and train the specialist economists, computer scientists and engineers needed by industry.

The Harris committee convened at a time when universities were turning their attention from undergraduate admissions, capped by the Government, to the lucrative postgraduate sector.

The explosion of taught courses has led to confusion among applicants. In some cases, master's degrees were offered that were little more than condensed and re-badged undergraduate programmes. Postgraduate researchers found facilities becoming overcrowded, and supervisors had less time to spend with students.

The Harris committee has scrutinised both the funding and quality of postgraduate education. Postgraduate work needs to be funded in such a way that it can still grow, but not take resources from either undergraduate education or research. The Government is not going to provide additional funds, and Professor Harris realises this.

"It would have been easy to say numbers should be capped," Professor Harris says, "but that would restrict ingenious postgraduate courses, especially part time." The committee's recommendation is to freeze funds - but not numbers. Courses that pay their own way can still grow.

This opens the door to universities charging students the true cost of their programmes. This already happens in certain disciplines, most notably MBA programmes. Its extension to academic master's courses is likely to be controversial, at least among students. The full cost of a one-year taught programme can be more than pounds 6,000.

However, not all fees need rise. Universities might still choose to subsidise some programmes from their central funds, especially non-vocational programmes, and some courses are far cheaper than others to teach. "Some fees might come down," Professor Harris says. "Institutions should conduct a root- and-branch revision of fees for postgraduate work."

Less problematic for the universities is the publication of a directory giving detailed listings of all taught postgraduate programmes across the country.

The term "master's" is used to describe widely varying courses, confusing both students and employers. Some genuinely build on undergraduate teaching and take students to a more advanced level. Others are conversion courses, which draw heavily on undergraduate lectures or classes to introduce students to different, but not necessarily harder, material.

Universities agree in principal that a distinction must be drawn, Professor Harris says. To retain the master's title, programmes must not simply come after a first degree, but be "postgraduate in level as well as time", he points out.

The committee also proposes, in a move students will welcome, that universities should adhere to a code of practice for postgraduate research. The proposal calls for minimum standards in supervision, monitoring and assessment and in researchers' facilities.

Some venerable universities could find their research funding threatened if this proposal is adopted. Unlike the research grading proposal, which only reduces funds, the code of practice will be a blunter instrument. Universities that fail to implement the code of practice will receive none of the HEFCE's research student funding.

The Harris report was agreed unanimously. Professor Harris hopes that this shows that the universities are putting their own house in order, at least in postgraduate education.