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The postgraduate identity crisis

With rising fears that there is a crisis looming in English postgraduate higher education, Jenny Shaw takes a look at a recent study which shows that that there is a crisis in identity and belonging amongst postgraduate students. With so much policy attention focussing on full time undergraduates and their fees, is it now time to look seriously at what is going on beneath the surface of the complicated postgraduate landscape?
This article is more than 9 years old

Jenny Shaw is HE External Engagement Director for Unite Students

Some fear that there is a crisis looming in England’s higher education sector. There are concerns that the first cohort to graduate under the new fees regime will have neither the inclination nor the means to go on to postgraduate study, resulting in missed opportunities for students, a significant loss of income for universities and potential long-term harm to our future skills and research base.

A recent survey of postgraduates carried out by NUS Services for Unite Students suggests that the real problem could be more complex and systemic.

First the good news: 20% of the 1750 undergraduates surveyed indicated that they intended to go on to postgraduate study, significantly ahead of the 14% that currently do. There is a small differential between students starting their course before 2012 and those starting after – 22% as opposed to 19% – but this is not a significant difference given the sample size. Neither was there a significant difference based on domicile: UK students are just as keen as internationals. So as things stand, demand for postgraduate study appears strong.

Is the current policy focus on postgraduate taught funding therefore justified? The answer does seem to be a resounding yes. Of the UK postgraduate taught students surveyed, only 12% agree that the current postgraduate funding system works, with 92% calling for a tuition fee loan system.

However the survey revealed a much broader concern about the way postgraduates are valued, and the nature of their student experience. One focus group participant summed it up as follows:

 Universities… just wring you dry of every penny you have, I… don’t feel that I have any relationship with my university. I go there and I leave.

Of postgraduate students surveyed, 35% did not feel integrated with other students at their university, and only a third agreed that UK society understands their needs.

This is not just affecting students from the UK. One international student related her experience of running out of money and couch surfing for several months, being confined to degrading part time jobs and not being able to apply for hardship funds because of her nationality, leaving her feeling ‘sub-human’.

Perhaps an underlying factor here is that there is no common understanding in the UK about what the postgraduate experience is actually like, and what prospective students can expect from it. Postgraduate study is highly diverse and includes a number of forms of educational experience, which makes this more of a challenge. However, the almost total lack of coherent and understandable narrative about postgraduate study in the UK is staggering. Particularly when contrasted against the more ubiquitous undergraduate experience which is now well understood and well represented across other parts of education, popular culture and society.

Focus group participants seemed unable to describe their postgraduate experience in and of itself without frequent reference to other lifestyle experiences:

For example when you go to work you work 8 to 5… you have your weekends free. If you are a [PhD] student… all the time you are studying or doing something to get to the point, even at some times in the weekends you have to work in your study, so it is not, it is not something, I don’t know how to explain it…

Another described it as like having a job, but absolutely no perks, and postgraduate life was on several occasions contrasted with ‘normal’ life.

This research certainly does suggest a postgraduate crisis, but not one that is confined to future concerns about finance. It is also a current crisis of identity and of belonging, and perhaps all the more insidious for this.

Postgraduates would certainly benefit from a more systematic approach to funding, especially for taught courses, and they have very strong feelings about this. But they also seem to be at risk of marginalisation, and do not have a clear benchmark against which to assess their experience. Perhaps what they also need is a higher profile in the public mind, a wider and shared understanding of their non-academic needs – and a bit of love.

The full report ‘Students Matter’ can be found here.

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