UK research and innovation functions

Higher Education and Research Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:00 am on 18th October 2016.

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Amendment made: 256, in clause 85, page 52, line 12, leave out “and new ideas” and insert

“, new ideas and advancements in humanities”.—(Joseph Johnson.)

This amendment provides that UKRI may facilitate, encourage and support the development and exploitation of advancements in humanities (including the arts), as well as the development and exploitation of science, technology and new ideas.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union)

I beg to move amendment 289, in clause 85, page 52, line 18, at end insert—

“(h) provide postgraduate training and skills development, working together with the OfS.”

This amendment would ensure UKRI reflects the current activities of the Research Councils as set out in their Royal Charters in respect of the learning experience of postgraduate research students, and would require joint working on this with the OfS.

I welcome the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South in his opening comments and I am pleased to be able to give the Minister an opportunity to clarify an area that our discussions have not so far touched on much, but which I think we will all agree is of some importance. The proposal for the office for students is at the heart of the Bill, and it deals primarily with the learning experience of undergraduates. It goes on to talk about the learning experience for postgraduate taught students, but fails to address a third, important category: postgraduate research students. Clearly they have a very different learning experience; nevertheless it is crucial for them because they are not only learners but teachers.

I am sure the Minister will agree that there is a number of issues relating to postgraduate research students, and although there is good practice across the sector, there are also areas where such students are occasionally let down. A crucial relationship for them is with their supervisor. Although there is much excellent supervision, there are also areas, such as feedback, where supervisors can get things wrong. Feedback and assessment are crucial to every student’s learning experience, but get them wrong and, given the particular intimacy of the relationship between a supervisor and a postgraduate research student, that can be quite destructive.

I recently saw comments that an early academic had written in The Guardian based on their own experience, making the point that feedback

“can take the form of constructive feedback for improvement, or demoralising sarcasm. I have experienced the full range, and it has had a direct impact on my research.”

Unfortunately there are examples of supervision being interrupted by:

“Unannounced departures for conferences, holidays and research projects.”

Those of us with experience of the sector will know about problems with the sudden retirement of supervisors. That could be halfway through a programme of work for a postgraduate research student, but I have known cases where people accepted a place based on a particular supervisor’s expertise, but found on arriving at university that that person was no longer in place. There is a whole range of issues there.

There is also the relationship between research and teaching. Two or three years ago the National Union of Students published a very useful report highlighting the challenges for postgraduate research students in taking on teaching responsibilities, the difficulty that there often is in getting the balance right between the two, and the pressure that is sometimes put on them to undertake teaching work, which can be to the detriment of their research and own learning experience.

The third area, which will be close to the Minister’s heart—I know the other two will be as well—is the issue of access and widening participation, because we need to be clear that those opportunities exist at every level of our higher education system. The initial focus was on undergraduate access and the Government have taken some welcome steps to address issues relating to postgraduate taught programmes, but we also need to have a focus on postgraduate research opportunities.

The amendment gives UKRI a clear responsibility for postgraduate training and skills development—it is phrased in a way entirely consistent with the royal charters of the current research councils—in conjunction with the office for students. As the Minister will remember, I raised this point with some of the expert witnesses at our oral evidence session. Professor Philip Nelson, the chair of Research Councils UK, agreed that this was an “important issue”. He went on to say that

“we in the research councils have three main ways of supporting PhD students across the sector. We do interact with HEFCE on that currently. I think it will be very important—the point has already been made in evidence to this Committee—that the OFS and the UKRI connection is carefully made.”

Professor Ottoline Leyser from the University of Cambridge agreed that that was an important point and went on to say that

“one of the opportunities generated by UKRI would be the possibility to have more integrated research into teaching and research training…we could develop better understanding of the most effective ways to do research training and teaching. That is one opportunity that is more difficult within a single research council.”––[Official Report, Higher Education and Research Public Bill Committee, 8 September 2016; c. 87, Q137.]

There are issues with how to address the learning experience of postgraduate research students. We are supported in the sector; there are problems that we are all aware of. Can the Minister reassure me on how he sees the roles of the two bodies? Will the OFS’s role in relation to postgraduate students include the regulation and assurance of quality, information needs for PGR students and their access to and participation in student protections? How does he see UKRI exercising its responsibility for the learning experience of PGR students, in conjunction with the OFS?

Photo of Jo Johnson Jo Johnson Minister of State (Department for Education) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Education)

I welcome the opportunity to set out the importance of postgraduate training and skills development to the future of our economy, and in particular to the strength of our research and innovation sectors. That is reflected in the provisions of the Bill that ensure that UKRI is able to support postgraduate training and work with the OFS on postgraduate and wider skills issues. The OFS and UKRI have been designed to work closely together, but let me offer some thoughts on the division of responsibilities between them and on how they might work together.

The OFS will be the regulator for all students, including postgraduate students, and will monitor the management and governance of HE providers, as well as their overall financial sustainability. The research councils within UKRI will continue to provide research grants for projects. Research England will deliver HEFCE’s current research funding powers, such as the quality-related research funding block grant. The Bill proposes safeguards to protect joint working and

“cooperation and information sharing between OfS and UKRI”,

which reflects the integration of teaching and research that we discussed earlier.

Research England, within UKRI, will lead on quality-related funding, the allocation for which currently includes an element that recognises research degree supervision. UKRI will fund postgraduate research, as research councils do now. HEFCE currently provides some funding from the teaching grant to support masters-level PGT; all teaching grant responsibilities and associated responsibilities will transfer to the office for students.

UKRI and the OFS will work together on monitoring and evidence gathering on the pipeline of talent from undergraduate study to postgraduate study, early career research and beyond. That underscores our intention for the OFS and UKRI to work closely together to ensure that there are no gaps between their respective roles. We want there to be no difference from the current situation in which an institution may receive funding from a research council but is still subject to HEFCE’s oversight of the sector. In practice, individual students will have little, if any, exposure to either body, since their interactions normally take place at an institutional level.

The Bill is a legal framework for these reforms, with the functions of UKRI broadly defined, as are the current functions of the existing bodies. They are drafted to be inclusive and permissive, and to ensure that the functions currently performed by the existing nine funding bodies can continue.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union)

A number of the Minister’s comments are reassuring. In describing the architecture and exercise of functions, he is talking largely in the context of continuity. The Bill has, at its heart, a drive to improve teaching excellence. Does he also see it as an opportunity to improve the learning experience of postgraduate research students? Should that be as much at the heart of what we are trying to do with the bodies we are creating as it is for the TEF?

Photo of Jo Johnson Jo Johnson Minister of State (Department for Education) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Education)

We see the research quality assurance process, through the REF, and the teaching excellence framework—the teaching quality assurance process that we are introducing—as being mutually reinforcing, as I have previously indicated. We want institutions to consider how they promote research-led teaching in their submissions, and Lord Stern’s review of the REF recommended that academics be rewarded for the impact on teaching of the excellence of their research. We will ensure that the two processes are co-ordinated and that timescales and deadlines have flexibility so that institutions can plan for the demands of the two systems.

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill Conservative, Bury St Edmunds 11:15 am, 18th October 2016

I listened to what the hon. Member for Sheffield Central said, and I contend that it is purely by having a flexible, open system that the things he asks for are actually possible. The problems within the system that he articulated are often due to the inadequacies of the departments involved. I know that because I have been closely affected by it. Allowing institutions to work with these overarching bodies but driving quality from the institutions themselves is what is wanted. Furthermore, an individual benefits from being asked to teach. It is not always detrimental for a researcher to expand their skills in that way.

Photo of Jo Johnson Jo Johnson Minister of State (Department for Education) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Education)

In answer to the question from the hon. Member for Sheffield Central on the teaching excellence framework and postgrad research, in the first instance, no, it will not deal with the postgrad experience; it focuses on undergrad and part-time. The Bill sets out clear responsibilities for UKRI and the OFS, with the OFS being the regulator for all students, including at postgraduate level.

There are a number of areas that will require close co-operation between UKRI and the OFS, including on postgraduates, and it is vital that they are empowered to work together. The Bill does that through clause 103, which enables and ensures joint working, co-operation and the sharing of information. An emphasis on working together will run through the leadership and management of both organisations, supported by a legal framework that will be sufficiently flexible to deal effectively with areas of shared interest.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union)

I thank the Minister for taking an intervention before he concludes, because I want to push a little further on the point I made earlier. The Bill seeks to improve the learning experience of taught students. Does he see that this is also an opportunity to improve the learning experience of postgraduate research students? Does he hope that the OFS and UKRI will work together to do that?

Photo of Jo Johnson Jo Johnson Minister of State (Department for Education) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Education)

Yes. We obviously recognise that our intention to drive up opportunities for informed choice and for students to receive a higher-quality experience in HE applies to all levels of study and all modes of provision. We certainly want to see postgraduate research included in that.

In the initial phase of the teaching excellence framework, as it develops and as it is trialled, we are focusing on undergraduate provision in the first instance, but we hope that in time it will be able to capture aspects of postgraduate provision, including postgraduate teaching. That is not something that we anticipate happening in the first three years of the new teaching excellence framework, but it could be something that we put into practice in the years that follow.

I conclude by reassuring hon. Members that I recognise the importance of postgraduate training and skills development in ensuring the continued strength of research and innovation in the UK, which is reflected in the Bill. I therefore ask that the amendment be withdrawn.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union)

I thank the Minister for his reassurance. I say in passing to the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds that I was not suggesting that teaching is to the detriment of research. Teaching is vital to the learning experience of many PGR students, but it is sometimes a question of getting the balance right, as it is when dealing with some of the other issues and challenges that postgraduate research students face.

On the basis of the reassurance the Minister has given that he sees the OFS and UKRI as having a role in ensuring we enhance the learning experience of PGR students, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

We are coming to the end of our allotted time. It might be convenient to draw stumps before we start consideration of the next amendment. I apologise that I will not be here this afternoon for the last sitting. Appropriate words will be said at the end, but I thank Mr Marsden for his dogged perseverance in holding the Government to account and the Minister for defending the Government.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(David Evennett.)

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.