The postgraduate predicament

With falling numbers of home postgraduates, the issue of who should pay for this vital study, and how, is an urgent one

September 18, 2014

A quarter of the way through a 216-page report comparing systems of postgraduate education internationally is a list of the “most striking characteristics” of England’s approach.

Third in the five-point list, which appears in a study published last week by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, is “the enthusiasm for recruiting international postgraduates”.

In the context of a Hefce report, “enthusiasm” is a decidedly racy word.

The authors are quick to note that non-European Union postgraduates are sought “for intellectual and cultural enrichment” as well as for “economic reasons”, and quite right, too.

But there’s no escaping the fact that many departments have expanded their international intake in the face of falling demand at home, particularly for taught master’s courses.

Postgraduate funding has been a problem for some time, but as with part-time study, policymakers have paid it scant heed as they focused on paying for the full-time undergraduate.

A precipitous decline in numbers of part-timers or home postgraduates may not hold the same political threat as a catastrophe involving undergraduates, but both are vital to the health and wealth of the nation – and, in the case of postgraduates, to our future as a power in higher education and research.

This week we look in detail at the issue, unpicking the tangle of problems and proposed solutions.

Speaking at the Universities UK conference last week, Greg Clark, the minister for universities, science and cities, was asked for his view of the postgraduate predicament.

Like his predecessor, David Willetts, he made all the right noises: “The way that the world is going – as education levels and skills levels in particular fly higher…and as the opportunities requiring advanced education expand – it seems to me that postgraduate education should expand with it,” Clark said. But despite the Treasury’s commitment to offering a solution in the Autumn Statement, he gave no indication of what this might be: “I want to be open with colleagues in the sector and say that I do regard this as important, and I would like to explore what can be done to help, but it’s not that I have a particular proposal in my back pocket.”

England is not alone here. In its summary of the challenges in eight major higher education systems, the Hefce report cites postgraduate funding as an issue vexing Germany, Spain and, in terms of the size of tuition fees, the US. It also highlights some ways in which these and other countries are rising to the challenge, including postgraduate access to a successful income-contingent loan system in Australia, and the absence of tuition fees in Norway, where doctoral students are treated as staff with employment contracts and rights.

The appropriate solutions will vary, but the authors of the report, Gillian Clarke and Ingrid Lunt of the University of Oxford, suggest that two key questions are common to all: how many PhDs and master’s graduates does a country “need”, and who should pay?

If the answer to the second is “the individual”, then access to loans on fair terms is a must; so too is an understanding, as Clarke and Lunt identify, that a “pervasive focus on employability has to be balanced with the commitment to the wider benefits of postgraduate education at all levels”.

john.gill@tesglobal.com

 

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