A ‘graduate school’ should award its own degrees

The Advertising Standards Authority is wrong to permit to any provider of training to graduates to declare itself a “graduate school”, says Viv Ellis

June 21, 2019
An advertising hoarding
Source: iStock

A graduate school is conventionally understood as the part of a higher education institution that awards advanced and research degrees. A new ruling by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) begs to differ.

From now on, the term “graduate school” can be used by any organisation that provides “education to individuals who already [hold] undergraduate degrees, resulting in the award of further qualifications at postgraduate level”. And, critically, the organisation describing itself as a graduate school does not need to have degree awarding powers and the qualifications do not have to be degrees.

The ASA was ruling on complaints about Ambition Institute, a new entity that was formed earlier this year following the merger of two organisations – Ambition School Leadership and the Institute for Teaching (IFT), both associated with ARK (Absolute Return for Kids), an influential chain of academy schools. Ambition Institute was advertising a “Masters in Expert Teaching”, first developed by the IFT, and describing itself as a graduate school. Ambition told the ASA that “to their knowledge, their communications had never resulted in confusion among customers or participants in their programmes” and the ASA held that its advertising was not misleading and could be substantiated. Ambition also said that it is “working toward” degree awarding powers.

Since its inception, the IFT had always styled itself after an American model, the independent graduate school of education (IGSE). This model emerged in 2011 when the Relay Graduate School of Education, was granted the right to award an MA by the New York State Board of Regents. Relay and the other IGSEs were explicitly set up as “alternative” providers in the context of political criticism of “traditional” universities’ teacher education programmes for allegedly not producing enough good teachers. IGSEs have since expanded significantly – despite the fact that the only comprehensive review of research and evidence of five IGSEs in the US deemed the claims for their effectiveness “apocryphal” and based on “illusory” evidence.

A critical difference between the Ambition Institute and the IGSE model, however, is that the latter have degree awarding powers – even if some states, such as Pennsylvania, initially rejected their applications because their proposed degrees did not have a sufficiently strong research component and their faculty did not have appropriate academic qualifications.

In the UK, on the other hand, an institution can now call itself a graduate school merely on the basis that it provides training to graduates that might lead to a postgraduate qualification validated by another organisation. The implications are significant. In the education field, most teaching school alliances – consortia of schools funded by the government to provide training to other schools – meet this definition; indeed, some large secondary schools may meet it on their own.

While the franchising of degrees is, of course, common in higher education, and the establishment of new providers has been facilitated by the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act, the ruling by the ASA marks a significant change. We may have got used to the likes of university colleges awarding other universities’ bachelor’s degrees but the possibility now exists for any provider of training to graduates to declare itself a “graduate school” with minimal conditions.

If you approve of this direction of travel, you will welcome the prospect of many more organisations and, indeed, individual sole traders describing themselves as graduate schools. If you don’t, you might well conclude that the term “graduate school” in the UK just became pretty meaningless.

Viv Ellis is professor of educational leadership and teacher development at King’s College London.

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