Given the increasing importance of postgraduate provision in the UK, and in particular the vital task of continuing to attract overseas students, it is essential to continue to ensure quality.
The titles of courses are causing some difficulties. There is no universally accepted definition of "postgraduate". The growth in masters degrees and the diversity on offer has led to problems of nomenclature, which make it hard for students to get a clear idea of what a course involves.
The Quality Assurance Agency's National Qualifications Framework defines five levels of higher education qualification. Of these, three are undergraduate and two postgraduate: "masters level" and "doctoral level" qualifications.
The problem is that the category into which almost all taught postgraduate qualifications fall - masters level - is broad. It spans a range from a postgraduate certificate, typically demanding three months of full-time study and sometimes requiring no prior acquaintance with the subject, to an extended masters programme (often called MLitt or MPhil), which takes up to two years of full-time study and is intended for those with substantial relevant education.
Nomenclature can also be confusing. In most English universities, the MA and the MSc is a taught postgraduate degree examined primarily on the basis of taught components. Cambridge University, however, describes its MSc as a research degree "requiring six full-time (or ten part-time) terms of research" and its MA, famously, is not an academic qualification at all.
Such idiosyncrasies are not exclusive to ancient universities. The more recent practice of identifying postgraduate qualifications with a focus on professional practice with a suffix indicating the field of study (for example, MEd) has greatly increased the number of qualifications on offer.
The way such qualifications differ from other programmes requiring a similar period of study is not consistent.
To further complicate matters, there are the undergraduate masters qualifications. These are offered to students who pursue extended undergraduate studies, typically in science subjects, and are something of an anomaly. These courses, which in effect integrate the content of a taught masters degree and a final-year undergraduate course, highlight questions about the notion of a qualitative leap between undergraduate and postgraduate study common to masters as a whole.
Doctoral qualifications are more homogeneous. Most doctoral students are pursuing research doctorates. In 2002-03, just over 2 per cent of doctoral students were studying for qualifications not examined mainly by research.
In recent years, there has been a move to complement the UK PhD's emphasis on original research with other elements designed to maximise the benefits of research study for the student and to combat social and intellectual isolation. The "new route PhD" is designed to integrate taught elements into a longer PhD programme while still expecting candidates to submit an original thesis. A similar approach can be seen in the "1+3" masters plus PhD programmes pioneered by some UK research councils, with a one-year masters in research training followed by a three-year PhD.
Other doctoral qualifications, generally in professional subjects, usually contain a term that describes the subject of study, such as EdD for doctor of education. These doctorates usually contain a substantial taught component, and the extent of original research varies.
While nomenclature is a cause for concern, there is no case to be made for regulation that would dictate to institutions what they could teach and to whom. On the other hand, as full-time taught masters students account for more than two thirds of overseas postgraduates, anything that reduces the credibility of the UK masters is a grave threat to UK institutions. It is important to allow innovation while providing useful information to students.
The fact that postgraduate courses of very different types appear to be clustering under the banner of the UK taught masters degree makes the case for greater quality of information more urgent. A standardised nomenclature may be the best way to achieve this, with courses clearly labelled conversion, research training or professional masters.
A final point to remember is that much of the education received by students after they have graduated is not specifically postgraduate and falls outside the scope of this report. A recent survey found that, while the higher education sector was the dominant provider of full-time education and training for graduates, the majority (59 per cent) of part-time study funded by employers was undertaken in the private sector.
The traditional doctorate (PhD or DPhil) requires the completion of a piece of original research that creates new knowledge. It is probably the most internationally transferable qualification. Other doctorates (such as DProfs), sometimes incorporating significant taught elements, go by different names.
Typically a taught masters degree takes a year of full-time study and is examined on the basis of taught units. It is common to require a dissertation. The function of masters courses varies greatly. Some are conversion courses, while others offer a top-up in a subject. Some are designed to offer insights into professional practice, such as MBAs, and some include a large research element.
Diplomas and certificates
The qualifications obtained after the shortest period of study are postgraduate certificates or diplomas. Some are awarded on the completion of units that form part of longer courses, usually a taught masters.
Others, particularly those for professional groups, aim to provide a grounding at practitioner level.
This takes a year and is, in essence, a conversion course in education practice.
Postgraduate education in the UK
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