Postgrad study: more than loans are needed

Academic staff must do more to address inequality of access to taught master’s and doctoral degrees, say Sally Hancock and Paul Wakeling

January 1, 2015

Academic staff have a direct responsibility to act as guides to the postgraduate landscape and the possibilities that lie beyond it

When the chancellor, George Osborne, announced a system of postgraduate loans of up to £10,000, it was a policy that met the principal demands of the groups that had lobbied for change.

For those concerned with inequality in postgraduate study and the implications for social mobility, allowing more people access to the substantial credit required for a taught master’s degree is vital. However, we must recognise that widening participation in postgraduate study is about more than overcoming financial barriers.

Universities often complain that inequalities in undergraduate access are the result of differences in school-level attainment, over which they have little direct influence. At postgraduate level that excuse does not wash: potential postgraduates are in our lecture theatres, seminar rooms and laboratories. But do we provide adequate advice and guidance to help them decide if they want to further their studies? Do we identify “cold spots” for postgraduate participation and target them for outreach activity? Have we examined our admissions practices to ensure that they are fair and easily understood? Do we know who is under-represented in our master’s cohorts? Unfortunately, too often, the answer to these questions is “no”.

There are clear gender inequalities at postgraduate level. Men are more likely than women to proceed immediately from a first degree to a taught master’s in most subjects and it is hard to believe that loans will have any effect on this.

Questions about access and outcomes reverberate at the doctoral level, too. The challenges of PhD recruitment garnered attention last year, when several UK doctoral training centres expressed concern that research council stipends are no longer lucrative enough to attract the best candidates (“Low PhD stipends are recruitment time bomb for UK, warn scientists”, 1 May 2014). It would be fair to hypothesise that the low level of PhD pay may be particularly discouraging for graduates from lower socio-economic backgrounds. In truth, however, we know little about the backgrounds and prior activities of UK doctoral students. We do know that women are again under-represented, in both absolute and relative terms, at doctoral level. But a fuller understanding of who gets in, and how, is essential if we are to widen participation in doctoral programmes.

Then there is the issue of who gets what from doctoral degrees – a matter that is also poorly understood. Research suggests that although most PhD students begin their degree intending to become an academic, aspirations change as the doctorate progresses. The ambitions of later-stage doctoral students are as diverse as their eventual professions. However, many PhD experiences are far from positive, and the extent to which outcomes reflect individual choices is little explored.

Inequalities probably play a part in the plethora of doctoral experiences and destinations. Doctoral students report differing access to information, advice and guidance, while arbitrary variations of economic, social and cultural capital undoubtedly shape postdoctoral paths.

It is widely assumed that a doctorate secures a privileged position in society; policymakers and business leaders promise interesting and well-paid employment opportunities to those who succeed. For the sake of social justice and economic competitiveness, universities and supervisors must ensure that doctoral students are equally well placed to benefit from these opportunities.

All of this points to the crucial role of academic staff on the front line. Collectively, we have a direct responsibility to act as guides to the postgraduate landscape and the possibilities that lie beyond it. This implies a personal effort to provide realistic advice and support students to explore further study and its outcomes. It also means working together to reach out to groups underrepresented at postgraduate level.

We must start with a common recognition that university is not necessarily a great leveller. Undergraduate access is not the end of widening participation; it is just one staging post in a long – and, we all hope, rewarding – journey.

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