As the number of postgraduates surges to more than 500,000 students in Britain, the spotlight is increasingly falling on what students are getting for their money, whether employers are satisfied with the standards of Masters degrees and PhDs, and whether or not the UK is internationally competitive in the postgraduate marketplace.
Concerns of this nature lay behind Lord Mandelson's decision in July 2009 to announce an inquiry into postgraduate education. "I am keen to do some further work on the unique role of postgraduate education, which is often the point where students develop specialist skills to complement a more general undergraduate education," said the Business Secretary ( below). "It is also a major export earner for the UK, and one which we have perhaps taken too much for granted."
The review will be led by Professor Adrian Smith, a former principal of Queen Mary, University of London and director general of science and research in the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. He will be advised by some key figures from higher education and industry. One of their priorities will be the attractiveness of British postgraduate education compared with, say, that offered by the USA and, increasingly, by other countries in Europe that now teach Masters degrees in English.
Lord Mandelson's focus is strongly on how higher education can serve the economy. The inquiry will look at the benefits of postgraduate education to the economy and society, and whether Britain has the right disciplinary mix of PhD and Masters courses. It will also examine whether postgraduate education should be concentrated in research-intensive universities as advocated by Professor Paul Wellings, vice-chancellor of the University of Lancaster and chair of the 1994 Group.
Although British postgraduate education has a high reputation internationally, there is a concern that the quality is uneven and that some institutions have much better provision than others. This will be one of the hottest-fought issues and some experts feel that more concentration would not be a good thing, arguing that it is old-fashioned and has been superseded by developments such as Great Western Research, in which groups of universities pool their expertise and leverage funding jointly.
According to Peter Williams, former head of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, there are questions to be asked about taught Masters courses. "[These] taught courses are the biggest growth area and they are essentially unregulated," he says. "They're not subject to funding constraints and they don't come under the control of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Are these Masters degrees at Masters level? A lot are still there to recruit students and are for income purposes. It's a fairly cut-throat market.
"You can see it as providing a great opportunity for the development of a skills base or as a kind of Klondike that everyone is rushing to dig for gold in," says Williams.
Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute think-tank, is also concerned about too great a range of programmes. There is no reason to think there is a problem with standards, but the balance between attracting students and maintaining quality needs to be watched, he says.
Howard Green, an expert in postgraduate education, hopes that the new inquiry will concentrate on taught courses. He says: "These are the ones that adults take for professional reasons and to update their skills – and they need to be taken seriously. Postgraduate research courses have been looked at on numerous occasions and are pretty much sorted." Now the Government must examine the purpose of postgraduate taught courses, he adds. Contrary to what many believe, these programmes are not concentrated in research-intensive universities but in those established after 1992.
"Some students are realising that an undergraduate degree is not enough to secure graduate employment," says Aaron Porter, vice-president of the National Union of Students (NUS), which will be submitting evidence to the inquiry. "That – and the fact that undergraduate numbers have swelled – means there are many more people contemplating taking a further degree.
"We need to look closely to see whether institutions are set up and sufficiently well-tuned to ensure they can provide high-quality postgraduate education to those they are admitting."
The NUS is particularly concerned by the availability of facilities and resources, and whether postgraduates who are teaching are receiving staff development support.
The union is also worried about the geographical distribution of postgraduate degrees, which means that some students are simply unable to take their course of choice because they have to live at home for financial or personal reasons.
Widening participation has been a central tenet in undergraduate education during Labour's time in office. With a further degree being seen as increasingly necessary for a graduate job, pressure is mounting for information to be kept on postgraduate students to ensure that it is not only the privileged few who are able to access such programmes.
Janet Metcalfe, chair and head of Vitae, says no figures currently exist on the socio-economic composition of postgraduate students. "Widening participation has never really been on the agenda for doctoral education," she says. "There's been no work done on whether we need to be concerned about this issue. There is no data."
Professor Smith's inquiry will be under pressure to examine the issue, covering such fundamental questions as who pays for postgraduate education. This should be something that appeals to Lord Mandelson, because it goes to the heart of social mobility, a subject that is dear to him. Metcalfe, who is the co-author of a new report for Universities UK on promoting British PhDs , will also be arguing that he should investigate how Britain can promote its doctoral education abroad.
"There is a lot of competition out there from the USA and, particularly, from the rest of Europe," she says. "I think that we need to promote the UK as a brand. There isn't a single department or organisation that is wholly responsible for doing that."
The rest of the world has not recognised how the British doctorate has been transformed by developments such as funding for PhD students to learn transferable skills and competencies, she believes. The Roberts funding may be killed off, but many, including Universities UK, want it to stay. So, there is a lot to fight over. Many academics are angry about the decision by the Government to end postgraduate scholarships for overseas students. And many are hoping that employers will be forced to take on more of the funding burden for those taking postgraduate degrees.
Often, employers are the people who benefit most. If Lord Mandelson's review can shift some of the focus of postgraduate education from research and innovation to whether Britain has the skills it needs, it will have performed a major service.Reuse content