Time to fill the data gap: A central database is needed as applications and course fees rise

It has been six months since a major Government review on postgraduate studies was published, and little has been done to fill what some officials describe as a "data vacuum" in the sector. Yet, with almost a quarter of students in the UK now studying at a postgraduate level, administrators say that this is the year in which the gap in statistics must start to be filled.

Commissioned by Lord Mandelson and led by Professor Adrian Smith, director general of science and research at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Government report, One Step Beyond: Making the Most of Postgraduate Education, said the value that postgraduate education brings to the UK is "under-researched and under-appreciated". In fact, while the number of postgraduate students in the UK has grown by 36 per cent over the past 12 years, there is still no central place where postgraduate degrees across all different higher education institutions can be contrasted and compared.

"There is certainly a data vacuum at postgraduate level," says Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students. "Especially now, while postgraduate applications and postgraduate fees are rising, postgraduate students need to be assured that they will have a high-quality experience and get value from their course. Without reliable, independent data, postgraduates' ability to make informed choices is limited."

While the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) provides indicators on widening participation, non-continuation rates, module completion rates, research output and employment of graduates in an attempt to "contribute to a greater public accountability of the sector" and "ensure policy decisions can be made on the basis of consistent and reliable information", such sets of data are not available for postgraduate students.

Hesa's performance indicators take a sector average, adjusting each institution to take into account some of the factors that contribute to the differences between them, but such benchmarks of comparison are unavailable across the postgraduate sector. According to Mark Gittoes, secretary for the Performance Indicators Steering Group and head of quantitative analysis for policy at the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), this is something the group is planning to reconsider at the end of this year.

"If we look at what is reported about postgraduate taught and research subjects, it is an area in which we have a gap at the moment," Gittoes says. "We are now looking at whether or not we can fill that gap within the development of the performance indicators." But he says expanding the indicators to postgraduate study could take at least two years to complete.

While Masters courses in the UK can cost anything from £2,000 to more than £30,000, depending on the subject and place of study, many institutions in Britain are unable to access clear data about their course completion rates. Out of the handful of universities that could, the University of Oxford produced figures that seemed at first glance alarming. According to a spokeswoman, more than 10 percent of its students on postgraduate-taught courses in 2008/09 withdrew before the end of the year. This figure is more than three and a half times larger than the withdrawal rate at Oxford for postgraduate-taught students in 2006/07.

Yet, when asked about the scale of the dropouts, the Oxford spokeswoman says the main reason for the rise in withdrawal rates is that the university moved to a new data management system during the period of the rise. She added: "It is unfortunately only recently that we have had access to the quality of data in the detail requested, so while we do monitor these things carefully at both undergraduate and graduate level, we have not been able to do so in the past, and are still limited in how far back we can look for trends and patterns."

Aled Davies, 22, enjoyed his economic and social history MSc at the University of Oxford so much that he plans to do a PhD at the university. But he says he remembers feeling "blind" when starting the application process. "I remember trying to find out about the course I was applying for and realising that data wasn't widely available. It would have been nice to know how competitive applications were and how many people drop out and things like that," he says. "I think that with more students shifting into postgraduate study and with rising costs, there is a lack of information on which to base your choices."

The One Step Beyond report found data was lacking on taught postgraduate tuition fees – which had risen 48 per cent since 2001/02 – as well as on the postgraduate application process, and profiles into the social background of postgraduate students.

But Professor Sarah Worthington, pro director for research and external relations at the London School of Economics and adviser to the review panel, says that more information, in itself, is not necessarily the answer. "One of the enormous advantages of the UK postgraduate system (and other systems too) is its diversity. People undertake postgraduate education for a wide variety of reasons, and at different stages in their careers. It is always going to be difficult to find a simple metric that provides useful information on vastly different types of offerings to such a diverse community of potential students. If comparisons are made thoughtlessly, the results risk being misleading rather than informative."

Rather than attempt to provide uniform data across the postgraduate sector, Worthington suggests it might be more useful to break down the sector and provide data on the different courses on offer. With several types of degree, from research and taught Masters to PhDs of varying lengths and description, officials have difficulty in providing a methodology that takes all variations into account.

But while the recommendations of the review might not have been drastic – one was for the UK Government to establish a working group within Hesa, the higher education funding bodies, Universities UK and other stakeholders, to inform future policy decisions on widening access to postgraduate study – no such group has been established.

Hefce has recently published a report into the qualification rates of postgraduate research degrees from 2000-2003, but the Universities minister, David Willetts, says that because the Smith report was in part commissioned as a contribution to the Lord Browne-led Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance, no response will be made into its specifics until after this report has come out in the autumn. "The Government is considering its response to the Smith report and will take decisions alongside responding to Lord Browne's report," says Willetts.

"The coalition Government is committed to improving the information available to students when they are making decisions about which course and which university is right for them."

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