Ill omen for postgrads as OU axes social science courses

Replacements delayed in light of coalition cuts and Browne recommendations. Simon Baker reports

February 3, 2011

Fears about the future of taught postgraduate degrees have grown after The Open University said it was axeing its social science master's courses, with planned replacements "under review" in light of government cuts and the Browne Review.

The distance-learning specialist will not accept new students on to the affected courses, which include its MA in social sciences and MSc in psychology, after May this year.

The National Union of Students described the move as a potential "early indicator" of turbulent times ahead for postgraduate provision.

Current students on the affected modules, which can also lead to postgraduate certificates and diplomas, have been told that they must finish their studies by 2013-14.

According to a statement on the university's website, the Faculty of Social Sciences "firmly intends to relaunch a postgraduate curriculum", but provision will be subject to a review in light of Lord Browne of Madingley's report and the government's funding plans.

The move follows warnings of a looming crisis in taught postgraduate provision owing to the tripling of the undergraduate tuition fee cap and the failure of Browne to recommend changes in state support for those studying at the higher level.

Experts have suggested that home postgraduate fees in traditionally cheaper subjects such as the humanities and social sciences will have to rise to at least the same level as undergraduate charges in 2012-13, limiting access to all but the wealthy.

There are already signs from some quarters that such fees could rise by up to 30 per cent this autumn to pave the way for a larger increase next year, with many published fees subject to change despite the applications cycle being well under way.

Malcolm McCrae, chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education - who recently stated that it would be "politically and economically" difficult for universities to hold down postgraduate fees when the undergraduate changes kick in - said a rise this year was "likely".

"Institutions would be wary about slapping on a 200 per cent increase in one go and would probably want to do it incrementally," he said. "It is reasonable to say that a student starting a course in October 2011 (cannot) know at this point what their final fee is likely to be."

Professor McCrae said it was too early to speculate on whether The Open University's move represented a long-term shift in the market, but added: "It is concerning if an organisation puts some of its provision under review, as a possible outcome could be that it will stop doing it."

Paul Tobin, who represents taught postgraduates in the NUS, said the university's decision could be "an early indicator of a future trend that highlights the government's seeming lack of interest in ensuring that postgraduate education is sustainable".

A spokeswoman for The Open University said: "A new programme of postgraduate social sciences modules and qualifications has received academic approval but is under review following publication of Lord Browne's report."

An announcement on the new programme is likely after April.

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