After years of neglect, it seems that postgraduate education’s time in the policy spotlight has finally arrived. The murmur of reports and evidence addressing the Browne Review’s postgraduate blind-spot has recently developed into a roar, with the release of the Higher Education Commission’s review of postgraduate education and pressure from NUS, mission groups and others, such as the Council for the Defence of British Universities for the government to act on postgraduate education to avert a crisis. This weekend, The Observer featured further warnings about an impending disaster, supported by calls for action from eleven vice-chancellors. For someone like me, who has been banging on about access to postgraduate education for longer than I care to remember, this attention is very welcome and long overdue.
Happy as I am that this issue now seems to be getting the attention it deserves, I nevertheless have some concerns about the way the debate is proceeding. The overwhelming focus is on postgraduate funding (or rather the lack of it). This is undoubtedly a barrier to postgraduate participation (although as I shall argue in a later post, perhaps not the single over-riding barrier to widening participation at postgraduate level). Given the widely reported stagnation and decline in UK postgraduates – which looks even worse in the context of a recession because postgraduate enrolments are usually counter-cyclical – lack of postgraduate funding is a cause for concern. There is however a more fundamental question which requires answering before funding can be properly addressed: how many postgraduates do we want?
It is often the underlying assumption of UK commentators in this area that there is a ‘correct’ and optimal rate of postgraduate participation which will maximise the economic contribution of those obtaining postgraduate qualifications without inefficiently triggering over-education – in other words, “how many postgraduates do we need?” I’ve no idea how such a number would be calculated, if it is even possible. If undergraduate participation rates are any sort of guide, then targets are either based on catching up with/overtaking beacon competitors (Germany, South Korea, Finland, Kazakhstan, or insert your own); or on an arbitrary figure which will sell well with the electorate: hence Blair’s 50% undergraduate participation target. But that is really the point: setting a postgraduate participation target is a political decision first. Until we are able to answer the question of how many postgraduates we want, the question of how best to pay for them makes no sense.
There are a number of potential answers to the question of how many postgraduates we want. The de facto position has been “as many as the market will bear”, or some variant of that, largely because this – and previous – governments (across the UK) have simply left the postgraduate level well alone. Although markets seem strangely to be considered untrustworthy in some areas of postgraduate study where numbers are tightly controlled and funding has been relatively generous (such as postgraduate teacher training), on the whole taught postgraduate study is open to anyone with a reasonable first degree and the funds to pay for tuition and living costs. Where employer support is available or courses are aimed at working professionals, UK enrolment is stronger, but hardly booming. Elsewhere things seem to be much worse. Answering “as many as the market will bear” gives little control either over who gets to do postgraduate study if independent financial means, rather than discipline area and ability is the main factor influencing entry. This might be acceptable if we considered the UK postgraduate sector as nothing more than an export industry. Since such a view seems incompatible with the purpose of a higher education, then laissez faire is entirely the wrong approach.
The opposite answer – “we want as many graduates to take higher degrees as can benefit from it” – will be attractive to many in the academy and on the political Left, including some resolutely un-socialist vice-chancellors, eager to grow their enrolments. This was essentially the Robbins Committee’s view on first-degree participation in 1963. Here there are two objections – one fairly obvious, the other less so. Funding postgraduate study is expensive and so blanket support out of public funds in the current fiscal climate would seem, to all except the most utopian of socialists, quite perverse (get in the queue behind free nursery places, smaller school class sizes, free undergraduate tuition and so on). However we might still want this as an aspiration, even if in practical terms it is difficult to achieve. A less obvious, but potentially damaging problem raised by free – or even relatively cheap – postgraduate education is the postgraduate participation paradox identified by sociologist Ken Roberts. If more and more graduates are encouraged and enabled to pursue higher degrees, then the value of an undergraduate degree declines and it becomes more and more important to get a higher degree (the classic ‘credential inflation’ argument, elsewhere described as an ‘educational arms race’). This will only further strengthen the divide between the highly-educated and the rest in the distribution of resources in society. There is a danger that expanding postgraduate education in the name of social mobility will actually have the opposite effect.
So what is my answer to the question? It is to agree a minimum participation rate around which a postgraduate taught funding system can be constructed. That would be a public, planned system underpinning a vital and vibrant postgraduate sector but without restricting those areas which have prospered under the current hands-off system. David Willetts, speaking at the launch of the Higher Education Commission’s postgraduate report, cautioned that Treasury cash would come with student number controls attached. That is no problem in this scenario (and indeed it is already the accepted model for doctoral funding). To limit the call on public funds, there is scope to adopt means-testing for some aspects of postgraduate support, which could also address the participation paradox identified above.
So what minimum participation rate would we want to support? There is a complete lack of evidence on demand for postgraduate study (another topic for a future blog post) and so there is always a risk of setting an overly optimistic target. But hey, blogs are supposed to be about this sort of speculation aren’t they? So personally, I would like to see one in three graduates taking a postgraduate qualification. With an undergraduate participation rate at around 45%, that would mean a 15% postgraduate participation rate (somewhat higher than the current 9% rate in England).
Many, perhaps most will not agree with my response to the question ‘how many postgraduates do we want?’ But before we can get on to thinking about the mechanisms by which postgraduate funding can be improved, we need to understand more clearly the size and shape of what would be funding. Setting that aspiration is a question which must surely be subject to political debate.