You'll have to give master's a KIS unless you promise to reveal more

Institutions warned to be more transparent about postgraduate course quality, writes Simon Baker

December 8, 2011

Universities could be lumbered with bureaucratic processes of "little value" such as mandatory Key Information Sets for master's degrees unless they are more open with postgraduates about course quality, a principal has warned.

Simon Gaskell, head of Queen Mary, University of London, said institutions must grasp the initiative and be more transparent about assuring quality for taught postgraduate programmes or it would be "imposed" upon them.

He said one "unspoken" motivation for providing master's programmes had been the ability to operate under a lighter-touch regulatory regime, but the tripling of fees for undergraduates had changed the game.

Speaking at the conference Taught Postgraduates: Competition, Marketing, Quality, held in central London, he said it was "critical" that universities "get on top of this".

"We don't really want to get into the position of having the equivalent of the Key Information Sets, which are widely suspected of being of rather little value, and the way to do that is to make sure that the really important information is presented to students in advance," he said.

The KIS - due to be rolled out next autumn - will provide course-by-course information on things such as employment outcomes and contact hours, but critics believe it is a crude scheme that fails to communicate the true nature and value of undergraduate degrees.

In last summer's higher education White Paper, the government suggested that the sector should consider a similar scheme for postgraduates.

Professor Gaskell's warning was followed by comments from Trevor McMillan, pro vice-chancellor for research at Lancaster University, who said that there were practical problems with using the KIS approach for postgraduates.

"On a very simple practical level, I suspect there won't be many master's courses that have enough students to pass the threshold that is needed in order for KIS data to become available," he said.

Professor Gaskell added that higher undergraduate fees had forced universities to look more "systematically" at the cost of providing master's courses and to consider raising charges to match.

This would require more openness with students, he suggested, although he also reiterated concerns that higher postgraduate fees could become the new "frontier" in the battle over fair access and wider participation.

Premium fees for overseas postgraduates would also draw closer scrutiny, he said, although the UK government's investment in research could be used as a justification for home students continuing to receive a subsidy.

The conference, on 1 December, also heard from Peter Forbes, associate director at the Council for Industry and Higher Education, who said master's degrees should be seen as more than simply a route to a better-paid job.

Such a philosophy was a "very cheap way of looking at what higher education is all about and isn't actually what society needs", he said. simon.baker@tsleducation.com.

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