Economy may stall if country coasts on past postgraduate success

UK’s future prosperity ‘relies on boosting the quality of master’s and PhD research’. Paul Jump reports

October 25, 2012

Credit: Science Photo LibraryDon’t sit still: focus on numbers and procedure overlooks quality

A “greater degree of self-awareness” about the quality of UK postgraduate degrees is needed if the country is to maintain its “world-leading” status, the Higher Education Commission has warned.

In a report on postgraduate education, released on 23 October, the commission expresses concern that “much of the current debate around quality is focused on ensuring robust procedural checks rather than a judgement of the quality of the research produced”.

It says the universities, employers and students that contributed to its eight-month inquiry, chaired by IBM vice-president Graham Spittle, “struggled to suggest measures beyond citation counts and university league tables”, which the commission does not believe are sufficient.

Academics as well as industrialists expressed widespread concern about the narrowness of UK PhDs, with one university figure recalling that “he had seen new postdoctoral researchers struggle to teach introductory undergraduate courses because they no longer had a sufficient understanding of the breadth of their field”.

The commission, which includes politicians and senior figures from the academy and business, calls on Research Councils UK, the Higher Education Funding Council for England and Universities UK to set up a working group, including industry representation, to examine the quality of postgraduate provision.

It cites the International Review of Mathematical Sciences, conducted by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in 2010, as an example of what is needed more widely.

It says industry, government and universities should increase the amount they invest in research and development, including postgraduate scholarships, in line with the UK’s “major competitors”.

It adds that “almost all” the contributors to its inquiry support the introduction of a state-backed loan system for taught postgraduate students and calls for a financier-chaired task force - also including government officials and representatives of industry, universities and students - to examine its viability. Last month, David Willetts, the universities and science minister, warned that any such scheme would inevitably come with Treasury-imposed number controls on admissions.

But the commission suggests that costs be kept down by restricting the scheme to disciplines deemed strategically important, necessary for entry to specific professions or whose students struggle to attract funding from elsewhere.

The report also says that research councils, learned societies and universities should offer enough doctoral studentships to replenish the research base. It urges them to pay particular attention to research master’s courses, which “are becoming increasingly important for gaining admission to doctoral research programmes” but which, in stand-alone form, attract few studentships.

The commission echoes widespread calls for international students to be removed from immigration figures to prevent any threat to the economic viability of strategically important disciplines, many of which rely on international students.

The report also says that better statistics are needed on postgraduate fees, admissions, socio-economic make-up and employment outcomes.

“Coasting on our past successes is not an option,” it says. “Postgraduate capacity must be at the heart of our national plans for long-term competitiveness and growth. Failure to do so puts at risk our future prosperity.”

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