Where are PG students in the Government’s plans?

I have spent more time in higher education as a postgraduate than an undergraduate and given my perspective, the first time I read the HE White Paper, I thought I had missed something. There was virtually no reference to postgraduate students in the much-awaited document. When I say ‘no’ reference there are a handful of paragraphs on page 21 that refer to other studies, particularly the 2010 Adrian Smith review, but the sense appears to be that this White Paper has passed the issue of postgraduate education back to Adrian Smith and HEFCE for ‘continued review’. Smith’s initial review highlighted that in contrast to undergraduate study / participation etc. we know relatively little about postgraduates and their requirements. As such the absence of a reference to postgraduates, particularly taught postgraduate students, concerns me in relation to two areas:

Funding & Participation

These two issues are inextricably linked at all stages of the education system. We know that undergraduate fees will rise and that funding will be cut. What we don’t know is what impact this will have on postgraduate education. Postgraduate teaching funding will also be cut but we don’t know if we are going see a sudden hike in postgraduate fees which already range from between £3000 – £12000. There has been no indication of what will be done to fill the gap in the postgraduate teaching budget nationally, maybe it will be left to individual institutions?

I also wonder if the increase in undergraduate fees will put people off wanting to study further when they have an already large debt burden hanging over them, particularly as there is no equivalent loan / grant system for postgraduate students. There are career development loans but they are usually expensive, have high interest rates, a much shorter repayment period, and are handled directly by high street banks.

Approximately 40% of postgraduate education is funded through the fees of international students alone, but as the Smith review stated; competitor countries are doing more to market their postgraduate sectors, and developing countries are focusing on improving and investing in higher education as a whole. What happens if this vital source of income to UK HEIs dries up as other counties develop their own provision?

Teaching & Student Experience

Taught postgraduates have different teaching needs than undergraduates. Many of them, from my experience, are older, have worked in industry or bring other practical experience with them. Rather than beinglectured at they are looking for critical discussion and debate or to acquire a particular skill e.g. the PGCE. This requires more time from already stretched academic staff, as well as different access to resources and an academic community beyond the confines of the physical university campus.

The transient nature of the taught masters, mostly taking place over one academic year, means that many masters students feel on the periphery of their departments and that not enough time is being spent on or with them. Complaints over contact hours, workloads etc. still exist at postgraduate level – these are not purely the concern of undergraduates.

These issues combine to paint a pretty sad and disjointed picture. There is no vision of what PGT education should be, how it should improve or where it is going. If less students can afford to enter postgraduate education, and those that do don’t feel they are getting the experience they deserve, it could result in less people moving on to undertake research. This could have dramatic long-term effects on the health of the UK research base. Therefore any wholesale rethink of higher education necessitates a look at the whole sector – from undergraduate through to taught masters and doctorate level study. The White Paper does not provide any sort of coherent sector-wide plan.

We need data collected from postgraduate students in a systematic way, in order to better understand this section of the student population. We also need postgraduates involved in any future review of their provision. The White Paper has provided a new focus on undergraduates as well as a change to the structure and funding of research students. However, these changes should not come at the expense of of taught masters students. They are an important part of higher education and need to be recognised as such.

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