The end of an era?

In the past, thousands of students flocked to Britain to study for one-year Masters degrees. But last year the expansion showed signs of halting. Is this a sign of things to come? Steve McCormack reports

Given that the British postgraduate sector has been such a runaway success in the past decade, it might seem churlish to raise a note of caution. With postgraduate student numbers up by 21 per cent in the past seven years and fast approaching the half-million mark, and with another 50,000 expected to enrol before the end of the decade, who could deny that the sector is guaranteed a prosperous future?

Given that the British postgraduate sector has been such a runaway success in the past decade, it might seem churlish to raise a note of caution. With postgraduate student numbers up by 21 per cent in the past seven years and fast approaching the half-million mark, and with another 50,000 expected to enrol before the end of the decade, who could deny that the sector is guaranteed a prosperous future?

But some observers are warning against complacency and highlighting reasons to doubt the solidity of applications. A conference next month, entitled The Future of Postgraduate Education, will bring together some of the most influential thinkers and policy-makers in the area. The aim will be to try to pre-empt some of the challenges universities might face on the road to continued expansion, and the financial security that comes with it.

The mood of the conference has been set by a weighty report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), which identifies a number of factors that might potentially upset the apple cart. Rising student costs, moves within the EU that could undermine the one-year taught Masters, the UK's market leader, and a possible over-reliance on overseas students - all these could sharply reduce the length of queues outside admissions offices.

But the message from Hepi's director, Bahram Bekhradnia, is fundamentally positive. "History shows how dynamic the UK postgraduate sector has been in recent years," he says. "It's responded to demand in a really very extraordinary way."

He does, though, temper his optimism with two caveats. Although he sees only growth in the number of students who go to a second country for postgraduate study, there's a risk in assuming hordes of people will continue to arrive in the UK. A related concern is that the British one-year taught Masters is in danger of suffering from its own success. Mr Bekhradnia thinks too many different types of course are being marketed under this title, ranging from some that are in effect preparing students for research, to those that are extensions of first degrees, to others in which students start a new subject.

"There is a case for greater clarity," he argues, "with course titles that differentiate between types of programme, within the overall one-year taught Masters bracket." This would prevent overseas students arriving in the UK and finding they're on the wrong course, and help employers understand the qualifications of potential recruits.

The expectations of employers feature more prominently than they used to. In the past, academics might not have given much thought to the world outside the libraries and laboratories on campus - the approach being "once an academic, always an academic". But that has changed with the steep growth of one-year taught Masters courses, many explicitly vocational.

A recent survey from the UK GRAD Programme (UKGP), which supports postgraduate research students, found that about half of British PhD students leave academia once they've got their doctorate.

This is concentrating the mind of Janet Metcalfe, the director of the UKGP, who thinks that postgraduate research courses should include some elements that are likely to refine skills outside the chosen focus of study. "The job market is a concern," she says. "I think we need to be more aware of giving researchers the competence that allows them to apply their skills in a much wider field."

To this end, the UKGP has succeeded, over the past few years, in persuading universities to offer PhD students a more structured programme of study, rather than allowing them to beaver away in a solitary, hermit-like existence that might bear the fruits of raw knowledge but isn't much help in the outside world.

Reforms such as this typify the way the postgraduate sector is trying to consolidate and sustain its success. There are two financial factors, though, that may have a negative impact on future applications, and consequently affect university coffers.

First, student debt is a big unknown. Anecdotal evidence suggests that domestic students are reaching the end of their first degrees with large overdrafts, a factor that can only be exacerbated by the imminent increase in tuition fees. The question gnawing away at university accountants' minds is: will there come a time when the growing debt burden produces a groundswell of opinion against supporting further studies, in favour of employment, after a BA or BSc?

At the University of Westminster, which has about 6,000 postgraduate students trying to cope with London's high-living costs, Dr Geoffrey Copland, the vice-chancellor, says there are early signs of debt becoming a deterrent to postgraduate study. "Some will question the value of a postgraduate qualification if they are already carrying a big debt," he says.

The second financial worry threatens the viability of the overseas student market. The Home Office proposal to double the cost of extension visas, for foreign students applying to stay on in the UK after their first degree, is ringing alarm bells in the corridors of many a university. The current charge for such an extension - between £150 and £250 - is already expensive for a full-time student. Doubling the visa cost could swing the balance against postgraduate study in Britain, in favour of a return home or study elsewhere.

Diana Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, is concerned that such a hike in fees would severely damage the country's ability to recruit international students. She has put her views in a letter to the Prime Minister, expressing particular fears for the areas of science, technology and engineering, disciplines that have a disproportionate number of international students. "Given the vulnerability of some these departments, this could have a negative impact on provision generally and the research base in particular," she wrote.

Bob Boucher, vice-chancellor of Sheffield University, echoes this sentiment. "Postgraduates often have families to support. I think this is absolutely outrageous." Mr Boucher quotes a foreign student talking in a student publication about the experience of extending her visa and paying the charges as they now stand. "I felt myself like a sheep being fleeced," she said.

Mr Boucher feels this touches on the real threat to the recruitment of postgraduate students from abroad. Last year, 40 per cent of universities recruited fewer or the same number of foreign students. "The pound is strong, it's very expensive here and postgraduate students are not rich," he says. "It's a tough market and our competitors are using these facts to attract students away from us."

Among the competitors are European institutions increasingly offering teaching in English for taught Masters programmes - mostly two years long, the standard length on the other side of the Channel. And here lies another potential threat. The so-called Bologna Process, working towards the standardisation of higher education across EU countries, may lead to the two-year Masters becoming viewed as the norm, or even the only accredited format, thereby damaging the reputation of the British one-year postgraduate degree. The consensus in the UK at the moment is that this will not happen, but the discussions are being monitored carefully.

Another ever-present issue, to be discussed at next month's conference, is the need for the sector to keep a vigilant eye on the changing nature of the postgraduate population, and to maintain the ability to adapt to accommodate it.

This is a prominent concern for Professor Howard Green, who chairs the UK Council for Graduate Education, and who will be making the opening address when delegates gather at the Barbican on St Patrick's Day. "I don't think we yet recognise the real diversity of postgraduate awards, and postgraduate students," he says. Most postgraduate students are no longer 21-year-olds doing a traditional Masters, or those a little older undertaking research. Large numbers are returning to higher education after 20 or more years in the workplace. He cites the example of a 42-year-old working in the health service, returning to university to do a postgraduate diploma in an advanced area of nursing, possibly in the evenings, or in several block-release segments.

This is only one example of increasing diversity. Another would be the many different methods of achieving a doctorate. Professor Green's important point is that universities must continue to adapt to meet the changing needs of these clients. "This includes everything from course design and delivery, to social space, weekend provision and access to facilities. These are large numbers of students," he says.

So there's much to debate at next month's conference. The postgraduate sector is certainly in a dynamic phase, and this journey is clearly not one that is heading for the doldrums.

The conference 'The Future of Postgraduate Education, Supporting the Students of Today and Tomorrow' is on 17 March at the Barbican, London EC2. For more information and to register, see www.neilstewartassociates.com/jb189

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