I read with sympathy and agreement Sir Roderick Floud’s article “From serendipitous excellence to a world-class omnishambles” (Opinion, 19 June), in which he talked about the difficulties caused by universities trying to be all things to all people and discussed the importance of institutions finding a sustainable niche in an expanding sector.
He highlighted the postgraduate market, which is experiencing a substantial decline in participation in the UK, as an example of where this could take place. There is uncertainty as to why the decline is happening, hence the Higher Education Funding Council for England launched its Postgraduate Support Scheme last December to find explanations and to look at sustainability issues and solutions.
The current decline in the postgraduate market – which commentators suggest may have been caused by changes in policy, a saturated market, increased overseas competition and a questioning of the value of this level of study – appears to suggest that the sector is facing a “revolution”. Yet revolution can be positive as long as we evolve and do not hang on to outdated products and behaviour.
A common response in the sector to the decline in the postgraduate market appears to be to do more research, to employ as academics only those who have PhDs and to do more of what we have done in the past, but better. Is this really the right approach when higher education is no longer just a mechanism to feed into research or a labour of love but is needed to deliver skills for a knowledge economy? Industry is telling us that there is a disconnect between the skill base of postgraduates and their business needs.
My concern regarding the new landscape we are facing and the responses by institutions to date is that if we are not careful we could repeat the experience of the UK during the Industrial Revolution, where we led the way for many years but then other countries overtook us because we failed to adapt to the demands of emerging markets.
I agree with Sir Roderick that “higher education is one of the best investments that the state and individuals can make” and that it requires adequate funding. However, if we do not get the postgraduate product right in this brave new world, then not only will we not provide business and individuals with what they need, but our product will become undesirable and, as a result, our extensive higher education industry will become unsustainable.
We need to evolve now so that our world-class sector does not become overshadowed by overseas competition. As the recent O2 mobile phone advertisement states, we need to stop thinking cat and think more dog!
Principal investigator and project leader of the Postgraduate Experience Project
Centre for Higher Education Research and Practice