Until recently, the story of postgraduate master’s education in the UK was one of unbroken expansion. Student number records have only been kept since 1994, but the trend was relentlessly upwards during the following 16 years. In the space of just seven years, for instance, the number of UK taught students grew by 27 per cent, touching almost 350,000 by 2010-11.
When enrolments took their first dip in 2011, there was little concern within universities. But the negative trajectory has continued. By 2016-17, enrolments had declined by 14 per cent compared with 2010-11 levels, with the UK-domiciled and part-time markets particularly affected.
Enrolments for other postgraduate courses, such as certificates and diplomas, also fell by about 10 per cent over the same period. This was a further blow to a group of courses that, up to 2004, had been almost as popular as master’s, before the latter began to eat into their market shares.
When the growth was happening, the sector did little to understand the reasons. This complacency left us poorly placed to pre-empt and manage the subsequent decline. The Postgraduate Experience Project that I created and led as part of a Higher Education Funding Council for England pilot between 2014 and 2016 found that when the economy is strong, individuals appear readier to invest in master’s-level study. This is because two-thirds of master’s students are over 25 and, therefore, likely to be in employment; when there is economic uncertainty, people are reluctant to step out of employment to make an educational investment in the future. So the 2008 economic crash was a major reason for the fall in master’s enrolments.
Part-time enrolments have fallen by 18.4 per cent since 2010-11. The reasons are multifaceted, but include the merging of teaching on part-time and full-time courses to save money. The result was that it often occurs during the day, which is not conducive to attracting part-time learners reluctant to give up their day jobs.
Then again, the wide range of working patterns in modern workplaces means that switching back to evening teaching is unlikely to be a silver bullet. Nor is any other single measure – but we do urgently need to rethink and redefine the taught master’s degree. University marketing offices have, in recent years, been inclined to promote it as a way to stand out from the crowd in the job market; advertising slogans such as “Earn more money by getting a postgraduate qualification” are common, despite no postgraduate qualification being a guarantee of a higher salary. Amid such mis-selling, the key point about master’s education has been lost: it is mostly about continuing professional development.
Universities need to be much more flexible in both how and when master’s education is delivered. Extended and flexible hours are commonplace in the world of work, and they should be in universities too. Offering teaching in blocks over a long weekend and blending face-to-face with distance learning is essential. If short courses and modules filled the knowledge and skills gap felt by small and medium-sized businesses, those businesses might be more willing to subsidise their workers’ fees and to allow time off for study.
UK universities can achieve flexible and staged learning alongside protecting their full-time offerings by accrediting modules and short courses, instead of running full courses. This is not a new concept and is already commonplace in health disciplines. Such approaches could engage both individuals who can’t currently afford the time or cost of a master’s, and those, such as the retired, who have not studied for a long while, if at all, but would like to sample it. A short course could whet their appetites to work towards a postgraduate certificate or diploma – or even, ultimately, a full master’s.
Higher education is notoriously set in its ways but universities must break the mould to restore the taught postgraduate market. It is no longer an option to function only between 9 and 5, Monday to Friday, and to expect the rest of the world to fall into step.
Michelle Morgan is associate dean (student experience) at Bournemouth University’s Faculty of Media and Communication