Beyond Covid, flexibility should be our new normal

Michelle Morgan calls for radically flexible postgraduate provision to serve both students and society in the future.

Michelle Morgan is Dean of Students at the University of East London. 

Something that Covid-19 has highlighted is higher education’s ability to revolutionise its delivery of undergraduate and postgraduate courses. Ordinarily, it would have been a slow evolution.

But now that the blended learning genie is out of the bottle, we need to continue that revolution by taking time to reflect on what worked well, what did not, and consider the new opportunities it has created for us in the future – especially with the higher education credit framework consultation just closing.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the need for flexibility around undergraduate degree provision as being the only way to ensure that workforces are equipped for the future. Many are discussing flexible UG modules as a way to provide choice and for these to be rewarded.

Similar arguments have existed at postgraduate taught level for a number of years.

Energy

In 2013, HEFCE funded the Postgraduate Support Scheme Phase 1 to explore how to energize the postgraduate taught market. This was because between 2010/11 and 2012/13, postgraduate taught first year enrolments had declined across all domiciled groups ( -10%) but especially UK (-13.6%) and notably with UK part-time (-20%).

In the eight years leading up to 2010/11, student numbers had held up due to the increasing overseas market which accounted for 34%. The scheme funded 20 projects looking at various approaches of which the Postgraduate Experience Project (PEP) was one.

The 11-university wide project looked at the postgraduate taught student experience and provision throughout the student lifecycle working with staff, students, external education bodies, and employers to explore how sustainability could be achieved in the UK.

It investigated how to reduce reliance on the overseas market, renergise part-time study, and deliver the key skills needed by employers. This would be important if the overseas market were interrupted in any way and enable universities to ride the wave of a crisis and avoid a financial cliff edge.

In 2015, the PEP project published an extensive report that not only provided insight into the prior learning experiences, expectations on entry and post study expectations of respondents but that also made several recommendations.

Greater flexibility

One of its primary recommendations was to adapt PGT delivery to provide greater flexibility and create new markets in order to achieve sustainability. Suggestions included:

  • Developing dual routes This would make courses flexible by enabling students to transfer between different types of PGT courses thus providing pathway options for students who feel they made incorrect study choices and potentially support completion rates (e.g. moving from a Masters to an MPhil).
  • Accrediting modules not a course This would provide the flexibility to run modules as short courses. It would also provide staged learning routes so students do not have to register for a Master’s but can enrol for a certificate or diploma and build-up to a Master’s qualification at their speed.
  • Different study delivery In order to expand (with limited cost) or to maintain (due to low take up) part-time courses, phase in the use of virtual technology so learning can be undertaken remotely. Covid-19 is the opportunity to kick-start part-time study and make participation more accessible.
  • Inter-university collaboration Universities could spread the cost of course delivery by offering a joint qualification where each institution delivers modules. This would bring innovation across the sector together.

Another key recommendation was to introduce a compulsory UCAS system for PGT study to help the planning process and identify more quickly changes in patterns of application and enrolment behaviour. Unlike undergraduate study, due to the absence of such a system, we have little understanding of postgraduate taught admissions or enrolment behaviour during the pandemic.

We don’t know whether enrolments have held up by domiciled status, how many universities may have delayed their September start until January or whether individuals did actually turn to PGT study in response to Covid-19 and the downturn in the employment market as thought could happen by the sector.

Loans

After HEFCE’s Phase 2 Scheme that provided £10,000 grants to students who were the first year to graduate under the £9,000 a year fees, the Postgraduate Loan Scheme was introduced in 2016/17.

The sigh of relief was almost audible across the sector and the general approach was to resume business as usual because the new loan scheme would solve the issues that postgraduate taught education had been experiencing.

The most recent data published by HESA highlights that although growth in participation across all modes of study has occurred year on year for UK and overseas, UK participation has noticeably slowed down (see table 1).

EU participation has remained relatively static in terms of numbers, but it is the substantive growth in overseas that is stark. The growth across UK and overseas is entirely in master’s courses with enrolments in Postgraduate Certificate in Education and Other PG taught courses remaining static.

This pattern is reminiscent of that leading up to 2010/11 when postgraduate taught participation reached its peak then started to decline in numbers. Obviously the caution is that Covid-19 has thrown participation out of kilter and this will be felt for some time to come.

Postgraduate taught first year enrolments all modes of study

Domicile2015/162016/172017/182018/192019/20
UK166955194475202065204745208780
+16.5%  (+27,520)+3.9%  (+7,590)+1.3%  (+2,680)+2.0% (4,035)
FT=73,810FT=92,695FT=101,920FT=102,465FT=105,360
PT=93,145PT=101,780PT=100,145PT=102,280PT=103,420
EU2190523685236002335522930
+8.1%  (+1,780)-0.3%  (-85)-1.0%  (-245)-1.8%  (-425)
FT=18,625
PT=3,280FT=20,030FT=20,200FT= 19,925FT=19,755
PT=3,655PT=3,405PT=3,430PT=3,175
OS9300595715106555119550152315
+2.9%  (2,710)+11.3%  (10,840)+12.2%  (+12,995+27.4%  (32,765)
)
FT=88,915FT=91,300FT=102,335FT=115,105FT=147,900
PT=4,095PT=4,415PT=4,220PT=4,445PT=4,415
Unknown195505505
Total282060313925332230347700384030
+11.3% (31,865)+5.8% (18,305)+4.7% (15,470)+10.4% (36,330)
FT=181,350FT=204,025FT=224,460FT=237,495FT=273,020
PT=100,710PT=109,900PT=107,770PT=110,205PT=111,010

Source: HESA https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/students/where-from

Looking forward

Covid-19 has changed working behavior across business, industry and higher education with many deciding to continue the blended approach of working at home and in the workplace. The pandemic has shown how important digital skills are in keeping the working environment moving forward. Higher education needs to evolve to meet these changes.

The suggestions from the PEP project back in 2015 seem more desirable than ever. The changed landscape has provided opportunities not just for study flexibility in UK participation through asynchronous study, but also for EU and overseas students who wish to participate in UK higher education that want to stay at home.

This all means that 2021 should be a year to press the restart button. Flexibility should be the new normal – particularly in PGT provision – if we are to serve our students and society.

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