The postgraduate policy vacuum

by Debbie McVitty on December 19, 2011

During the festive season it is traditional to turn our minds to those less fortunate than ourselves, and so it is appropriate that we take a minute to reflect on those poor neglected postgraduate students. It is incredible to think that during the upheavals we have seen in the past twelve months of higher education policymaking, postgraduate students have barely got a mention. If undergraduate students are to be ‘at the heart of the system’, it looks like postgraduate students are an amputated limb.

Given that in the view of those of us who like to style ourselves left of centre, and much of the policy changes have been for the worse, we might argue that postgraduate students are better off safely ignored. But of course policy shifts cannot but affect postgraduate education and the failure of government to either anticipate or deal with this is striking.

We did have the 2010 BIS Postgraduate Review, a document that took 100 pages to say that postgraduate education is pretty good shape, and everyone should carry on doing what they are doing. Oh, and any funding issues would be bounced to Browne, whose report took a mere one page to say that postgraduate funding and student support is not worthy of scrutiny, never mind considering how to make access to postgraduate study fairer, and the benefits of postgraduate study are private anyway, so who cares? Let them stick it on their credit cards.

The government finally responded to the recommendations of the Smith review over a year after its publication, a response that unsurprisingly said, ‘fine, business as usual’.

To be fair to the Smith review, at the time I think a lot of us felt fairly complacent about the whole thing. I haven’t read every submission, but I doubt there were any spectacularly innovative or life-changing proposals put forward. This, I suspect, is the problem with making policy in a data vacuum. In the absence of evidence to the contrary it is easy to assume all is OK. National policy on postgraduates is not something that comes easy; it is certainly not a vote winner. Much easier to let the universities crack on.

Since then, however, we have had a lunatic piece of economy-busting policy on further restrictions to Tier 4 visas, a move guaranteed to hit the international postgraduate market. We’ve also had cuts to the teaching grant, an undergraduate fee cap of £9,000 and some spectacular levels of tinkering with student number allocation systems that will leave a number of universities very hard-pressed.

For taught postgraduate courses (excluding those that already command an astronomical fee for a one-year Masters course), the pressure on fee levels is inexorably upwards. How are institutions to sustain a demand for their taught postgraduate courses within the UK when students are already anticipating graduating with tens of thousands of pounds of (albeit notional) debt?

At research level the Innovation and Research Strategy for Growth makes no mention of research postgraduates. Though it is on the backs of the research postgraduates labouring in labs around the country that our world-leading research base is built.

What’s more, numbers of doctoral researchers is REF-able under the research environment measure. As Paul Wellings observed back in 2008 (remember the HE Debate?) numbers of PhD graduations correlates not just with QR funding but with patents and IP income. Arguably, it is these students who are at the heart of the system (the real system). Can we be assured that these students are genuinely being trained to be world-class researchers as opposed to, say, being forced to work 25 hours a day under the supervision of a junior postdoc?

So, is the policy vacuum a problem? On the ‘no’ side we have national PRES and PTES survey results that suggest that postgraduate students are for the most part fairly chipper. Though NSS says the same and that doesn’t stop our relentless drive to improve the quality of undergraduate education. We have the Research Councils pretty much driving postgraduate research policy (so as long as you agree with their approach…). We also have promises to start a process of monitoring that would in principle generate evidence on which to base postgraduate policy, if you can hang on for five or ten years.

On the ‘yes’ side you have such thorny, but un-addressed questions like, who gets to access postgraduate study, and how fair is that? Do postgraduate fee costs affect access to postgraduate study? Should we be worried that postgraduate growth in the recent past has almost entirely been driven by international students? What is a research community and why do research postgrads not feel like they have one? Why is it OK to have a principle of ‘no fees upfront’ for undergraduate study but not for postgraduate? If you have a doctorate, but aren’t working in academia, do you still get to contribute to the knowledge economy and if not, what was the point of spending all that money on training you?

Most of all on the ‘yes’ side we are in serious danger of creating a policy environment where the system is made to work  – whether at teaching or research level – through the exploitation of postgraduate students as a financial or human resource with no concomitant commitment to ensuring an appropriate educational experience and associated public benefit.

Even if you feel like Browne – ‘no problem here’ – as a sector we tend to have policy activity on absolutely everything, making the absence of thinking on postgraduate education peculiar at best. Certainly at a time when everything appeared to be on the table, the failure of government to think about postgraduate students is both a missed opportunity and an unmistakable message: ‘we don’t really care about you’. Undergraduate students are an election issue; research is an economic issue. Postgraduate students are a non-issue.


{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Jonathan Woodhead December 19, 2011 at 9:52 am

PG Fees don’t necessarily have to be astronomical. Take a look at what we are doing at London Met with our own postgraduate review.

Emma Jones December 19, 2011 at 2:25 pm

Agreed that pg study, and fees in particular, should be an issue. And it should be discussed alongside the problem of unpaid internships. When one completes an undergraduate degree, in most professions these days the only way to get noticed is by doing either a postgrad or an internship, both options of which are of course only available to those who can afford it. Most graduates therefore end up in jobs that are unworthy of their skills and potential, or else remain unemployed.

Andrew Fisher December 19, 2011 at 4:59 pm

@Debbie ‘as a sector we tend to have policy activity on absolutely everything, making the absence of thinking on postgraduate education peculiar at best.’

Can’t help but feel that this makes postgraduates peculiar in a good way.

@Emma ‘the only way to get noticed is by doing either a postgrad or an internship’

I’m not at all sure this is true. Internships apply only in a restricted range of fields (although they may be important in some of those). The evidence I’ve seen suggests that a PG qualification *without* experience can be a disadvantage in the labour market. When I’ve seen candidates with MBAs and trivial/no work experience this has felt very plausible to me…

Debbie McVitty December 19, 2011 at 5:50 pm

@Andrew Fisher haha yes I did think about that! In this policy environment better to remain firmly in the background. But that doesn’t really solve the problem of the knock-on effect of other policies on postgraduates – you could argue that we can’t know these for certain yet, of course, but right now it doesn’t feel like there is even much of a structure for thinking about these things, let alone the political will…

@Emma you make a good point about access to the professions – cf Alan Milburn’s report from 2009 – I’d love to see a working list of professions (in the widest sense) that tend to require internships/postgrad qualifications/’more than a degree’ – would take a bit of detailed work and some speculation – and you’d have to control for other factors which would be a challenge – but it would be very useful.

Mark Leach December 22, 2011 at 11:54 am

David Willetts gave a speech this week where he bemoaned the failure to deal with PG stuff and blamed Peter Mandelson for not including it in the Browne review.

This seems utterly ludicrous given that Willetts and this government heavily influenced Browne after they took office and so could have insisted on more attention on PG issues. He also seems to be forgetting that he is the Minister and has been since May 2010 – and he could have dealt with this at any point between then and now. Perhaps in the HE White Paper?

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