Postgraduate courses face ‘perfect storm’

Taught postgraduate courses are facing a “perfect storm” caused by drops in student numbers and a fall in institution income

January 25, 2014

That is the view of Mick Fuller, chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education and head of Plymouth University’s graduate school.

Professor Fuller, who was speaking at a Westminster Higher Education Forum on 23 January, said institutions were now less able to cross subsidise master’s provision because of the squeeze on undergraduate numbers.

“It is going to be turbulent, it is going to be unpredictable and it is going to be damaging, and for some it is going to be terminal,” he said of the future for master’s courses.

With the new fees regime set to leave graduates with loan debt of tens of thousands of pounds, many in the sector question whether students will burden themselves with more debt by moving into postgraduate study.

Professor Fuller warned: “We might see key provision across the sector disappearing in great swathes because the demand is not there.”

Postgraduate courses at UK universities are also now facing competition from institutions in mainland Europe. For example universities in France, Germany, Holland, Denmark and Sweden have begun offering postgraduate taught and research courses delivered in English, he said.

These courses are not just attractive to overseas students, who comprise 58 per cent of all postgraduates in the UK, according to Professor Fuller, but UK students too. These countries have “very good government support and financial package mechanisms”, which make the courses cheaper than those in the UK.

Sir Bob Burgess, vice-chancellor of the University of Leicester, added that the supply in taught master’s programmes had already become “dangerously low”.

“We need to think about new ways to attract postgraduate students into higher education,” he added.

He challenged the sector to come up with “interventions and solutions” to address the issues.

Examples could be offering discounts on course fees to undergraduates on graduation if they stay at the institution for a postgraduate course.

Part-time courses could be also made available over the course of 10 years rather than two to add flexibility, he added.

Universities should also talk with businesses and banks to explore how postgraduate education can be developed, he said.

Sir Bob added that universities should devise master’s courses based on what students require not what academics think are interesting areas for study.

“We have got to come up with new structures, new intellectual content, new modes of delivery and we have also got to think about greater flexibility in terms of funding,” he said.

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Reader's comments (1)

We have noticed too that a major contributing factor to the perfect storm scenario is indeed the growth in taught postgraduate courses offered by mainly northern European countries - in English and with modest or no course fees. GTI Media is currently surveying undergraduates (as we do every year) to see if their willingness to undertake postgraduate study has been affected by debt and the growth of cheaper alternatives outside the UK. We will launch the results at a Forum of university PG admissions staff at the forthcoming TARGETcourses Postgraduate Study Fair at the University of Birmingham on 19 February - and make the Report widely available to universities afterwards.

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