Booming industry hit by slack demand and oversupply

Beyond the First Degree
October 16, 1998

The rapid growth in recent years of postgraduate education was probably the driver for the Society for Research into Higher Education to devote its annual conference in 1997 to the subject. This book is a collection of edited papers from the meeting. Three key themes are covered: graduate education, lifelong learning and careers.

It is refreshing to have the complete educational life cycle presented. In particular many of the contributions, of which there are ten, make good use of comparative international data. The book's aim is to influence the wider policy debate and to encourage best practice.

The growth in the number of postgraduates in the United Kingdom is a phenomenon in itself. Burgess reports that there has been a 62 per cent increase in the number of full-time students and a staggering expansion of 85 per cent of part-timers, at the masters level, in the past five years.

Although the books's introduction has a significant amount of data, the inclusion of appendices would make this a more helpful research tool. Expansion of the higher education system raises issues of quality, organisational structures, academic versus vocational and the impact on the labour market, all of which are covered.

Such changing trends are not only occurring here in the UK but also in the United States, Canada and Australia, whose systems are well reviewed by experts in their field. However, broad debates often involve generalisations. The US chapter has a major focus on doctoral programmes, suggesting an over-production of PhD graduates. This may be the case in science and engineering but not in business schools where there is a real shortage of high-quality, well-trained academics, despite US starting salaries of $140,000.

Part two of the book focuses on lifelong learning and its significance to individuals and organisations. The education market is becoming increasingly segmented, observes Chris Duke, and he effectively examines the dilemma of whether there is "real lifelong learning" or massification of traditional qualifications. As the importance of the "learning organisation" is recognised, it is suggested that traditional boundaries will be removed.

A European overview and analysis of lifelong learning by Barbara Merrill contrasts the case in Sweden where "about 50 per cent of the adult population engage in some form of adult education each year" with the French and Belgian education systems, which remain largely elitist. We also learn that the UK is more advanced than many other European member states but has some way to go before it catches up with the Swedish system.

Susan Weil, who runs the aptly named centre for Social and Organisational Learning and Reanimation, provides a model for lifelong learning and tries to square the circle. She draws on an impressive international experience and has managed to implement her alternative model of postgraduate education and lifelong learning in her own institution. It is left for the reader to decide if the model will work for them.

The third section of the book is devoted to careers, which Burgess has quite rightly included. An increasing number of postgraduates are taking up posts not traditionally reserved for them, resulting in qualification inflation with masters level students competing in some sectors with undergraduates. Graphical data presented by Keith Dugdale indicate that unemployment in the new university sector is about a third higher than in traditional universities but that permanent employment is greater in the former than the latter. The absence of comparative international data, which are presumably difficult to obtain, will leave the reader pondering where we really stand.

For those that recruit, the lack of sufficiently developed interpersonal skills is their major concern as well as a high proportion of graduates lacking "commercial acumen". Hence, a radical rethink of curricula appears to be called for. Under-employment is examined and the additional benefits of postgraduate experience in career terms are discussed.

The papers are well researched, with individual reference lists, and provide a useful contribution to the postgraduate education debate. The book tackles the agenda well, and should therefore, in my view, be compulsory reading on and off campus.

Raymond Madden is director of executive development, City University Business School.

Beyond the First Degree: Graduate Education, Lifelong Learning and Careers

Editor - Robert G. Burgess
ISBN - 0 335 19977 1 and 19976 3
Publisher - Open University Press
Price - £50.00 and £18.99
Pages - 204

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