Revolution required to keep boom on track

March 7, 1997

Graduate education needs to be broadened to meet the needs of the 21st century

Graduate education is one of the main successes of United Kingdom higher education in the 1990s. But the increased numbers of students (up by 215,000 since 1979), and higher demand for one-year taught masters programmes suggests that institutions need to rethink the scale and scope of postgraduate education and training.

Much of the discussion over the past five years has focused on a relatively small number of topics. First, structures that are appropriate to deliver graduate education, especially the development of the graduate school model and the ways in which this can be adapted for use in the UK.

Second, quality control including the procedures to monitor and develop graduate courses. These are set in a context where minimum standards and more can be achieved in terms of content, timing and submission of dissertations and theses to improve the "time to degree," on which the UK now scores well for research council and British Academy funded students.

Third, academic and social provision associated with the increase in postgraduate student numbers. This has meant that institutions have had to consider the infrastructure required specifically for postgraduates such as libraries with extensive evening, weekend and vacation opening times, computing facilities available for students to do course work, and a range of social facilities that are open all year round rather than the conventional academic year.

Yet we need to ask who are the postgraduate students? We know from national data provided by the Higher Education Statistics Agency that there were 335,325 postgraduates in the UK in 1994-95 and that 129,711 students were full-time or on sandwich courses, while 173,210 were following part-time courses (including 81,221 on taught courses). Of these students, 21 per cent were from overseas and 30 per cent of all first-year postgraduate students were aged between 21 and 24. These figures highlight the strength of the postgraduate student base. It has considerable potential for higher education, provided there is some fundamental thinking about which students to attract and the courses they need at graduate level.

It is usual to hear politicians, pundits, academics and senior industrialists talk about the importance of lifelong learning for increased economic performance. But how is this to be achieved? Is there a role for graduate education and training?

With the development of rapid technological change it will be essential for business, industry, commerce and the public sector to re-evaluate the knowledge and skills required of employees and the importance of professional updating on a continual basis. But will higher education and graduate schools be able to rise to this challenge?

Many students emerge with first degrees and debts. Will these students be able to continue in education immediately? Indeed, is it desirable for students to have completed their higher education by their mid-twenties? Alternatively, should we think about making arrangements for higher education; especially graduate schools to deliver programmes that will meet the needs of individuals throughout their lives? In these circumstances, we need to re-evaluate the provision at masters and at doctoral level.

Although masters courses are offered on a full-time and part-time basis, the potential students will find that members of higher education institutions think about part-time study in a conventional way. Many part-time masters degree courses have to be completed in two-years following the pattern of the academic year.

Yet we have an opportunity to modularise postgraduate courses which will allow for more flexible study. In some cases, modules can be customised for particular professional groups or for employees from specialist companies. In these circumstances, the masters degree programmes that are on offer may be tailored for particular groups and may link closely to the work and work patterns of employees so that the degree can be obtained over a long time.

But what changes might be on offer at doctoral level? The regulations of most universities indicate that a doctorate should be an original contribution to knowledge and can be obtained by the presentation of an 80,000 word thesis over four to five years (depending on full or part-time study). We need to consider whether this is the best way of accrediting and examining doctoral work in all subjects.

In the past few years we have witnessed the development of the professional doctorate based on a number of taught courses and a dissertation. As many of these programmes are in professional areas (education, clinical psychology, business studies and engineering), the dissertation, and in some cases many of the assignments, are based on work-based problems. However, there is potential to develop taught doctorates in a wider range of fields: legal studies, social work, health sciences and in the humanities. If a range of new programmes were provided we would be able to make closer links between leading-edge research and the practice of business, industry and the professions.

Still, the taught doctorate will not satisfy the demands of some subject areas. How might we accredit work of doctoral standard when it consists of a dramatic performance, a film, a series of paintings, a musical composition or sculpture? This issue is being examined by a working group established by the UK Council for Graduate Education which reports this summer.

In this case, as in the case of taught doctorates, it is essential not to think in terms of the PhD, but rather pieces of work that may constitute the equivalent of a thesis or dissertation that achieves doctoral standard.

There is huge potential for UK higher education to rethink postgraduate education so that it includes a wider range of students who are updating and developing their skills and knowledge. This must be provided in a research context within graduate schools which would have a broad remit to embrace basic, applied and professional areas of research. It is to be hoped that this will result in graduate education that is able to meet the demands of society.

Robert Burgess chairs the UK Council for Graduate Education and is a pro vice chancellor of the University of Warwick.

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