The academic market-place

Student fairs are increasingly lively places as universities compete for undergraduates in a buyer's market. Lucy Hodges talks to those setting out a stall
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The Independent Online
As postgraduate numbers have boomed, so have postgraduate recruitment fairs. This Saturday's North-east graduate study fair at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, sponsored by The Independent and the Independent on Sunday, is the first of its kind in the region. It follows fairs in London last week, and in Glasgow, Manchester and Birmingham last year.

The fairs are where prospective postgraduate students and the institutions first meet. For universities it is a chance to fly the flag, to entice students with glossy brochures, appealing new courses and boasts of how well they do in the research assessment exercise. "It's important to attend," says Allan Howells, head of graduate admissions at Sheffield University - though he adds: "I don't know that it has a positive effect, but if we weren't here I think it would have a negative effect."

Some universities relish the chance a fair offers. "We would not want to miss the opportunity to talk to students direct," says Sue Beasley, of Anglia Polytechnic University.

Other institutions attend in a more determined effort to boost postgraduate student numbers. A spokeswoman for Bournemouth University said that numbers applying for postgraduate courses had flattened out. "We can't afford to be left behind." And Chris Philpott, senior lecturer in education at Canterbury Christ Church College, which attends most fairs to spread the message about its PGCE courses, is even more candid: "This is about institutions' survival," he says.

Graduate recruitment fairs are a testament to the changes in higher education this decade. Universities are operating in a lively market- place. Academics who once did business behind closed doors are having to hawk their wares in public. Some are finding the experience amazing. Mike Thompson, course leader in the centre for environment and computing in architecture at the University of East London, was sceptical about recruitment fairs until he attended one. Now he says: "There are so many universities ... unless you are prepared to make yourself known, people will not know you. So, you have got to go to these fairs and take them seriously."

Sheffield University's stall at last week's fair in Islington, north London, which displayed a blown-up poster of that university's stellar performance in the research assessment exercise, was buzzing with students asking for details of courses and funding. The social sciences graduate brochure, in particular, was being snapped up by potential applicants and their parents. Top of their wish lists were courses in leisure management, town and regional planning, geography and journalism.

Over at the University of Newcastle's stall, interest was being shown in conservation and coastal management, women's studies, and computing conversion. Dr Anne Allen, who is in charge of Newcastle's postgraduate recruitment and is organising the North-east fair, attributes the burgeoning interest in graduate studies to the tight job market. "If students fail to find a job, they have to do something else," she says. "A postgraduate qualification provides the answer. It also makes them stand out compared to other applicants."

Increasingly, because of the huge increase in the student population, big employers who would have recruited high-flyers for management training before their final examinations are now hiring from the ranks of postgraduates. That way, they recruit young people with more experience and with better qualifications than previously - and they don't have to pay them any more.

The new universities are increasingly wanting to show their faces at graduate recruitment fairs to boost their research profiles and show that they are in the same league as "old" universities with established research departments. Oxford Brookes, for example, was attending last week's London fair for the first time, displaying brochures for a one-year MSc in international management aimed at overseas students (cost, pounds 6,300) and for an MA in the social anthropology of Japan (cost, pounds 2,500).

The other great incentive for universities to boost postgraduate courses is the money they earn. Because of funding formulae, graduates are worth more to university departments than undergraduates. And overseas students are especially valuable because they are charged full-cost fees. "We're working on bringing in students from overseas," explains Stuart Rooks, course manager for the MSc in international management, which has recruited students from China, America, Kenya, Columbia, Japan, Malaysia, Russia and other countries.

Another bonus is that staff are highly motivated to teach postgraduates. They prefer conveying specialist information to students who already have a first degree. If they can establish a postgraduate course that attracts applicants, attracts income into the department, furthers its reputation and helps to boost its ratings in the assessment exercise, so much the better. The extra money the course brings in goes towards hiring more staff.

Tim Blackman, deputy head of the school of social science and law at Oxford Brookes, explains: "We're looking to develop MA programmes so that we can earn enough income to enable us to expand academic earnings. Humanities have followed a strategy of developing a portfolio of Masters' courses aimed at regional and international markets. They have used the income to employ new staff who are research active."

That strategy has paid off. Oxford Brookes, for example, employed key new research staff in history of art, architecture and design, and received a respectable grade 4 in the research assessment exercise.

The great thing about postgraduate students is that there is no ceiling on numbers, as with undergraduates. Universities keen to develop as many income streams as possible are making common cause with graduates keen to hone their employabilityn