If one aim of launching a review into postgraduate education was to show that policymakers regard postgraduate study as more than an afterthought, the timing could have been better. Lord Mandelson announced the review, by Adrian Smith, director general of science and research at the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, last July, as the Government neared the end of its term and the country was in the longest recession for more than 50 years.
Postgraduate provision was “a major export earner for the UK, and one which we have perhaps taken too much for granted”, Mandelson said. But when Smith’s report was published, less than six weeks before the general election, political circles were more exercised by who may be in power to implement any of its recommendations than by the recommendations themselves. And the financial situation meant Smith had been told that whatever he came up with would have to be cheap. Given these circumstances, will the report actually have any effect on the lives of current postgraduates or their successors?
Not a lot, says Professor Malcolm McCrae, chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education, who calls it “a bit of a damp squib”.
Howard Green, a senior partner in the consultancy Postgraduate Directions, says: “The conclusions and recommendations are very mild. You don’t feel there is someone banging on the desk saying we should have done this or that.”
But look closely at the recommendations and there are at least a few clues as to what direction postgraduate study is going.
Professor Sir Robert Burgess, vice-chancellor of the University of Leicester where nearly half the students are postgraduates, says the review has “built on where we have been heading in postgraduate education and training over a number of years”.
Certainly, the experience of being a postgraduate has been changing radically. First, there are a lot more of them. Over the past 12 years, the number of people undertaking postgraduate study in the UK has grown by 36 per cent. Nearly a quarter of all students in UK higher education are now studying at postgraduate level.
Then they are a lot more diverse than they used to be. Half of all international students in UK higher education are studying at postgraduate level. And they are getting many more opportunities to experience this diversity. While postgraduate study used to mean shutting yourself away in a library or lab with little chance to interact with others beyond your immediate research group, students taking further degrees now often have their own graduate schools, and a dedicated student representative. They are also encouraged to take courses in generic skills such as communication, project management and leadership, to engage with the world of work where possible, and to think about their future career.
Smith was charged with responding to these changes. His report emphasises the importance of postgraduate education to the UK in financial and social terms and urges the Government to do more to promote it, especially overseas, including monitoring any obstacles in the student visa system. But it also warns against universities becoming too reliant on tuition fees from overseas-taught postgraduates and thinking more carefully about the information and employment prospects on offer to them.
Burgess says that, until now, many institutions have thought about international postgraduates mainly in terms of recruitment, and that Smith’s report makes it clear other issues need to be considered. “It raises questions about how we internationalise the curriculum, whether we have thought about the student experience from the point of view of an international student,” he says.
International students could now have better access to funding, thanks to Smith’s recommendation that the research councils should look at ways of opening up more postgraduate research studentships to them in certain disciplines, although this will depend on the amount of money available. And they should find themselves better informed. Smith recommends extending the National Student Survey to include taught postgraduate students, extending and improving the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey and making information available on teaching
quality on postgraduate courses. He also proposes a single, comprehensive source of up-to-date information about postgraduate study. This should help UK and foreign students get a better idea of what they could be letting themselves in for if they take courses at particular institutions.
Meanwhile, while cash specifically earmarked for skills training will come to an end, Smith says this training remains essential and should be embedded in courses in future, while universities should also offer better information and advice on careers.
The most controversial aspect of Smith’s report is his recommendation to concentrate research funding in areas of excellence. Teaching-intensive universities complain this could harm diversity, making it harder for students who want to study close to home to take a postgraduate qualification, while research-intensive universities insist that when resources are tight it makes sense for them to be concentrated in institutions with top-class facilities and expertise. The review does, however, support the idea of more collaborative research centres, which could mean more students from different institutions working together. How any of this will be implemented, however, depends on the plans of the new administration.
The same is true of Smith’s recommendations on widening participation. While he recognises this as an issue, he hands responsibility for dealing with it over to Lord Browne’s Independent Review of Higher Education Funding, due to report in the autumn.
Alice Hynes, chief executive of GuildHE – one of the two formal representative bodies for higher education in the UK – says: “There are key messages from the report for Lord Browne, not least of which is the lack of data on postgraduate education. This is preventing good understanding of the issues and appropriate policy development.”
While most in the higher education sector agree the report contains few surprises, many welcome it as recognition that the work done on postgraduate study over the past few years has been on the right track. It also offers the new administration a crash course in what postgraduate study is about.
'YOU NEED MONEY TO TRAVEL TO PLACES AND TO BUY DOCUMENTS. I WOULD HAVE LIKED TO SEE THAT MORE REFLECTED IN THE REVIEW"
Joy Elliott longed to be able to draw on better student feedback and comprehensive information about the grants available from different institutions when she applied from Canada to study for a postgraduate qualification in the UK.
As it is, while she is happy with her Phd in international relations at Aberdeen, she says that she feels she has absolutely no idea whether or not she made the right choice about where to study because she knows nothing about |what it is like being a postgraduate elsewhere.
She is also conscious that her research could have been better had she been able to obtain more grants to help her carry it out.
For her, the recommendations in Adrian Smith’s review to improve the amount of information available to prospective students is therefore invaluable. She would nevertheless like to have |seen more on the issue of fees and funding.
“Being able to do research requires funding, so postgraduates need it even more than undergraduates,” she says. “You need money to travel to places and speak to people, and buy documents and go |to libraries. I would have liked to see that more reflected in the review.”
Nor is she convinced by the review’s arguments that research money should be concentrated in institutions with a reputation for carrying out high-quality research.
“Funding should be given on the basis of the research rather than where it is being done,” she says. “Otherwise you just perpetuate the problem.”
She prefers the idea of researchers from different institutions working together and achieving a “critical mass” of researchers that way.
And she supports the idea of international students having better access to research funding. “I came here because I thought doing a Phd was about doing a project I was really passionate about, only to find out that in terms of finance and access to resources it’s in fact where you come from that counts,” she says.
While she believes in the importance of skills training, she suggests that embedding it into postgraduate courses rather than offering it separately will be no bad thing.
She argues that because current skills training tends to be voluntary, and divorced from whatever stage students have reached in the rest of their research, it can be difficult for them to see the point of doing it until they actually need it.
If students and supervisors are forced to engage with it as part of a postgraduate programme, she suggests that it is likely to be more effective.
But whatever the pros and cons of the report, the real question is: who will take responsibility for carrying out its suggestions?
“Some of the recommendations are really good,” she says. “But I don’t know how it’s going to work from here.”
"WE PRODUCE RESEARCH AS GOOD AS ANYWHERE"
If research funding were confined in future to institutions with a reputation for research excellence, David Black would never have been able to do a Phd.
A mature student, Black could only consider studying at institutions close to Leicester, where his wife works and where he is raising his children. De Montfort University, where he has started the third year of a Phd in materials science, is not one of the elite group of research universities, and his department is small. “But from an excellence point of view, we produce research as good as anywhere,” Black says.
He is therefore anxious to know what the review means when it talks about getting best value from limited resources by concentrating public funding “in areas of excellence”.Reuse content