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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Why David Willetts is not a ‘latent snob’

It is difficult not to be cynical about the Universities Minister’s recent exhortation to institutions to address the underrepresentation of white working-class boys in higher education. It may have coincided with the release of a depressing downturn in applications in the 2013 UCAS cycle, but the timing was surely no coincidence as BIS looked to deflect attention from another indication of the unfolding tragedy befalling English HE post-Browne. Timing aside though, David Willetts has a point: white working-class boys are one of the most under-represented groups among undergraduate entrants and his intervention prompted some very interesting responses. Conor Ryan of the Sutton Trust gave a summary of the research evidence in his blog and pointed out that only half as many boys as girls apply to Sutton Trust summer schools. Patrick McGhee, VC of the University of East London, outlined seven practical steps which would help improve working-class boys’ higher education participation (for all ethnic groups). I should declare an interest here – I was a white working-class boy. In case you are now thinking “well-he-would-say-that-wouldn’t-he?” I also appreciated Janet Beer’s corrective which counselled of the danger in focussing on any one group (and particularly her point that women are disadvantaged in progressing to higher degrees – another topic for a future blog post).

However, for me the most interesting and thought-provoking response came from an MP I’d never heard of before: Brian Binley, vice-chair of the BIS Select Committee and the Conservative member for Northampton South. His blog on the subject is largely party-political invective against New Labour higher education policy and manages to contradict itself within the space of a paragraph. However there are two interesting things about it: it accuses Willetts of peddling an “elitist authoritarian fantasy”; and complains about a broader educational snobbery (of which Willetts is, by implication, guilty). For instance:

what these learned people need to remember is simple: there is nothing wrong with not having a degree, or opting for vocational training in place of university post-nominal distinctions

and elsewhere:

my contemporaries and I didn’t need a worthy professor shedding tears that we were able to make our way in the world without his impressive post-nominal accoutrements.

On the face of it, standard British anti-intellectual fare plus the University-of-Life trope which anyone with a degree and an aged uncle has heard at some point before. The accusation of snobbery is misplaced: if Willetts was not discussing widening participation in any way or suggesting that university is ‘not for the likes of’ some people, that would be snobbery.

But behind Binley’s complaint is a more profound point and one which my students return to again and again in discussing educational and social change and the huge rise in university enrolments over the last few decades. In the 21st century, educational qualifications have come to monopolise the path to success. Sure, there are exceptions, but they are increasingly rare and usually limited to particular fields – football, the odd businessperson, some of the entertainment industry. To ‘get on’ in most other areas basic educational qualifications are essential and higher education increasingly important. Young people are subject to what Alison Wolf calls “the tyranny of numbers” – not going to university is, despite the exorbitant cost, an unpalatable option. Some of those who don’t go ‘make it’, but most don’t. Many of those who do go don’t want to and/or don’t make it, but on the whole the odds are stacked in favour of the educated. In particular, making it to Westminster as an MP is increasingly a graduate’s game and so Brian Binley’s trajectory is likely to be far less common in the future.

We might have different views on whether this is a good thing or not and regret the shrivelling of non-university routes to success, with all that entails for the character of public life. That it is happening, and happening the world over though is surely a matter of fact rather than opinion. The sociologist David P. Baker has argued that modern society is a schooled society – that institutionalised education was not only a catalyst for societal transformation but that schooling (and higher education) has come to characterise the form of society we now inhabit. Generalised academic intelligence, for better or worse, has become a central measure of worth in a way analogous to the place of military prowess in medieval feudalism. It’s a polemical view, but one which I think has considerable merit. In the light of this pervasive ‘educationalisation’ of society then, the call to increase the participation of white working-class boys in higher education is not snobbery, but enlightened realpolitik.


Filed under Higher education policy, Schooled society, UK, Widening participation

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