Category Archives: Postgraduates

Fully-funded PhD studentship available on the taught postgraduate experience

We are offering a fully-funded ESRC PhD studentship in association with the Higher Education Academy analysing the taught postgraduate experience using the Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey.

This full-time, three-year award provides tuition fees, a maintenance award of at least £13,726 p.a. (for UK students) and a research support grant of £750/year. The project is supervised by myself and Dr. Gillian Hampden-Thompson. It is an opportunity to work on research into postgraduate education at an exciting time.

Visit the Department of Education’s website for further details (click on ‘Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Scholarship for 2014 entry‘).


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Postgraduate policy, principles, pragmatism and private finance (part 1)

Postgraduate funding is increasingly regularly making the news. This week’s story featured an exasperated postgraduate applicant, Damien Shannon, who is suing St. Hugh’s College, Oxford, alleging that it has unfairly discriminated against him on grounds of wealth. As he describes in his blog for the Guardian, Mr. Shannon had an offer of a place on the MSc in Economic and Social History with strong support from the University’s economic historians. In the absence of a scholarship he planned to pay his own fees and work to support himself. However the College’s insistence that he have both the tuition fee and a full year’s maintenance in advance (reportedly £21k) ruled him out. It would rule me out too and I have a full-time professional job; so what hope is there for a new graduate unless s/he has rich and generous relatives?

It’s a troubling case and not the only example I’m aware of. It is particularly sad that the whole thing has reached the stage of litigation, which I doubt will help anyone much. I hope it leads Oxford to have a re-think and revise their requirements here, which on the maintenance front at least, seem substantially out of step with the rest of the sector, for British applicants at least.

The implications for social mobility are pretty clear. If applicants without a scholarship need close to a year’s full time median UK salary in the bank to gain admission, then it’s a scholarship or nothing for postgraduate applicants from working-class and lower-middle-class backgrounds (i.e. for most people, it’s nothing). Of course, postgraduate scholarships are not means tested at Oxford or anywhere else – no US-style needs-blind admissions here. What few scholarships there are could go to students who are academically able but in no financial need.

Surely, some flexibility on maintenance is required? Those aspiring masters students who can scrape together the fees and budget themselves through 12 months with savings here and a part-time job there deserve encouragement. It’s far from an ideal situation and I wouldn’t want to romanticise such self-sacrifice but it does seem perverse that evident personal enterprise and commitment to learning can be blocked through inflexible regulations. I’m sure Oxford is not wilfully trying to exclude the disadvantaged. I don’t doubt that the rules were thought up out of a concern, however wonky and paternalistic their logic may be, to avoid putting postgraduate students into hardship. The outcome might be unintended, but it plainly doesn’t help the disadvantaged (and for Oxford’s critics, there is a whiff of Jude the Obscure about it).

The underlying issue, which both sides in this case would surely agree on, is the lack of up-front student finance for taught postgraduate study. Were there access to loans for masters students, this case would not have arisen. It would be great to have increased public subsidy for postgraduate education, but right now it’s at the back of a very long queue, even within post-compulsory education. Resurrecting the Education Maintenance Allowance and AimHigher ought to have priority.

So what are the prospects for bridging the postgraduate funding gap? I will turn to those in my next post.

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How many postgraduates do we want?

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.

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Filed under Funding, Higher education policy, Postgraduates, UK