There's life after 21..

March 12, 2004

The government ignores the clout of postgraduates at its peril, insists Miriam David

The media debates about the higher education bill and the white paper that preceded it - billed as the "future of higher education" - have been extraordinarily narrow. It is as if the future of higher education depends solely on resources for, and from, undergraduate students. There has been virtually no public debate about postgraduate studies, students, education or research.

Regardless of whether we agree with the government's approach, postgraduates are vital. They make up about a third of all students and their number has been growing faster than that of undergraduates. How this has happened illustrates and prefigures the introduction of market forces into education. Universities can charge fees for most programmes - both taught and research - subject to the vagaries of the market.

Over the past five to ten years, there has been a massive expansion of different forms of postgraduate studies and research. The majority of students are no longer white males from the British middle classes studying full time in their early 20s. The typical student is more likely to be studying part time while also engaged as a busy professional and is likely to be either self-funding or funded by an employer.

Even among traditional doctoral students, the funding councils provide bursaries and/or grants for only a minority. There is also a large number of overseas and international students funded either personally or officially. Leaving aside postgraduate professional training programmes such as teacher education, there is a plethora of masters and doctoral studies programmes. These include traditional PhD studies funded by the research councils and new-route PhD programmes that require taught elements, and a huge range of professional and practice-based doctorates.

What are the likely implications of the government's policies on postgraduate studies and in particular doctoral studies? If the government is to achieve its aim of getting 50 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds into higher education by 2010, it will need to expand the academic workforce.

That means relying on research studies since that has become the gold standard. But there has been no discussion of how to ensure the adequacy of the academic workforce. Indeed, universities are locked in a dispute with the Association of University Teachers over pay negotiations. The white paper made some allusion to this, but not to extending the types of bursaries paid to new academics, although a programme for new recruits has been mandated by the Quality Assurance Agency.

In any event, how will universities persuade research students to become the next generation of academics if, at the end of their undergraduate education, they are left heavily in debt? What will be the implications for access and widening participation to postgraduate studies? Most students will be unable to fund their postgraduate studies immediately after having been undergraduates unless their parents pay.

In the white paper, the only discussion about funding postgraduate research is that Higher Education Funding Council for England money for studentship would be tied to research centres. Hefce has subsequently confirmed this type of approach following the Roberts review of the research assessment exercise. This has severe implications for the richly diverse postgraduate doctoral student population. Only elite universities will have access to research student funding. The recent distribution of quota awards by two of the research councils confirms that tendency.

While we may not wish to condone markets in higher education, the serendipitous effect has been a transformation of postgraduate studies.

Policy threatens that transformation. It implies a re-stratification into an elite with funded, full-time young adults from across the globe and a variety of less well-endowed universities with mature students undertaking at least two occupations. In a few years, Steven Schwartz will surely be asked to investigate widening participation and access to postgraduate studies.

Miriam E. David is research dean of social sciences and professor of policy studies in education at Keele University.

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