When the Student Loans Company released figures for 2016/17 showing that 52,000 loans were made to UK and EU master’s students – leading to an overall increase of 26,000 enrolments, you could hear an audible sigh across UK universities. It felt like the new postgraduate loan scheme had ‘solved’ the issue of declining postgraduate enrolments.
It is undeniable that the uptake in loans has halted the decline in enrolments in the UK which started in 2011. However, although the provisional figures for the uptake of loans in 2017/18 may also be healthy, the impact on enrolments is still uncertain. For many – including myself – who have researched the postgraduate student experience, the increase in participation due to the introduction of the loan scheme was anticipated – a long-awaited addition that many of us have argued for over a number of years. However, the sustainability of master’s enrolments is not possible without addressing the other core issues. The loan scheme, as welcome as it is, will not be the silver bullet to do this.
Ten steps to sustainability
Laying the foundations for widening and sustaining master’s level participation across the UK requires a substantive shift in thinking and a major change in activity by the government and the sector. There are three overarching questions: 1, what is master’s study for; 2, what do we mean by widening participation at this level of study; 3, and how are we going to fund and support this critical activity?
In the past fifteen years, master’s study as a product has moved from being perceived as primarily for continuing professional development to one which has been hijacked by university marketing departments to swell student numbers and coffers in the short-term. If we are to ‘widen’ participation, we need to know where to widen, what to widen and how to widen. At present, we just don’t have the insight as to how to do this.
Below are ten key actions to make postgraduate study fit-for-purpose in the 21st century. The failure over the years to address these key steps only continues to confirm that master’s study retains a position as a ‘bolt-on’ secondary market to undergraduate study.
1 Compulsory postgraduate UCAS system
The most critical activity we need to implement is the introduction of a compulsory postgraduate study UCAS system to provide us with big data that provides intelligence across the applicant and entry study journey. This will enable us to be more effective in the identification of new opportunities and markets as well as the delivery of our products. The only data we currently have to support this is the HESA return which gives us a snapshot of participating students three months after enrolment. The fourteen month data lag in publishing the statistics is problematic as it prevents a timely response to fluctuations.
The current UCAS system, UK Pass, is only used by eleven universities. A compulsory national postgraduate application system would enable us to track applicant behavioural patterns and characteristics across all postgraduate courses. Like at undergraduate level, having this data will enable us to identify where and why there are issues, and hopefully enable us to create solutions. A single UCAS fee would be much easier for applicants, and time and money spent processing fruitless applications within institutions would be saved. Applicant data would be available at a national level for policymaking and planning.
2 Fee realignment
If we are serious about sustaining this level of study then we need radically to realign our fee structures. It does not cost the same to deliver an MA in English Literature as it does an MSc in Biomedical Science. If a fair and reasonable fee regime were put in place part based on delivery costs then the benefits could be numerous. This discussion must take place separately from that which is currently occurring at undergraduate level because this level of study is about continuing professional development and not about introducing students to the knowledge base within a specific discipline.
Getting this right could re-energise master’s participation in the arts, humanities and social sciences. It could enable more flexible delivery – supporting the expansion of part-time master’s-level study. And it would be an effective vehicle in widening participation.
3 Adopt a staged learning approach and not a deficit model
Twenty five years ago, the part-time postgraduate courses defined as ‘PG other’ – consisting of certificates and diplomas – were as popular as the full-time master’s courses. However, as master’s degrees increased in popularity, many certificates and diplomas were absorbed into master’s courses and used as fallback qualifications – creating a deficit model.
In some disciplines such as health, certificates and diplomas still exist. Reintroducing these qualifications across a range of disciplines in a staged learning model approach could enable the learner to tailor their studies to their needs with management sections linking up to defined targets, which would also solve retention issues. It would offer more options for employers, allowing their employees to fit in study alongside work.
4 Employer focus
Of course, if we want to expand our market, we need to make our offerings valuable to employers. This means that we have to be proactive. Universities are notoriously slow in changing direction – there is a lot of great work going on in the sector where institutions are working with employers to create bespoke courses of varying lengths and qualifications, but this needs to become more common.
5 Course restructuring for flexibility: blended approach and flexible delivery
To increase participation means that we have to move away from relying primarily on face-to-face delivery. One of the reasons part-time study has plummeted is that many providers deliver the provision alongside full-time learners which primarily takes place during the day.
Having a blended approach alongside flexible delivery such as block study or over a long weekend will make it more viable for the individual to participate and hopefully encourage employers to be more supportive of study at this level. There’s also the option to allow credit to build up via a series of short courses, already common in health disciplines.
6 A postgraduate loan scheme to cover certificates and diplomas
The long-awaited postgraduate loan scheme has clearly provided opportunities for learners in undertaking master’s degrees. However, if the government is truly committed to lifelong learning and supporting the delivery of skills then it needs to extend the loan scheme to cover certificates and diplomas.
7 Collaborative not competitive
There is no reason why short courses, certificates, diplomas and master’s degrees cannot be made up of modules delivered by a range of different institutions. Universities collaborating and bringing a range of existing modules to the pot means that an individual provider doesn’t have to create new modules which it may not be best placed to deliver. With universities under increased pressure to create innovative programmes, collaboration rather than competition is a strategic and logical way forward.
8 Understand expectations on entry and not just experience on exit
The sector is so focused on understanding the student experience on exit that it fails to collect and understand the expectations and prior learning experiences on entry which lays the foundation for a student’s study experience. Student expectations and prior study experiences have changed in the past ten years. Putting entry to study surveys in place provides the intelligence needed to enable university managers, course leaders and support services to design and deliver a high quality student experience.
9 Be honest on the offerings
The reality is that there is limited evidence to demonstrate that possessing a master’s degree will dramatically increase someone’s salary over a lifetime or improve their employment prospects after obtaining an undergraduate qualification. Yet marketing departments across the sector advertise promises such as “a master’s degree will help you stand out from the crowd” and “a masters won’t just help you to get a job after university – it will also help you to earn more money in the long term”. Maybe this is true for a handful of disciplines, but the small to medium enterprises that make up a substantial proportion of the economy often do not need master’s graduates.
10 Know your market
Universities have to know their market. If they can’t effectively deliver master’s level study or a particular mode, withdraw or evolve. Institutions need to determine what their strengths and weaknesses are and not try to be ‘all things’ in the delivery of higher education. It is not possible! We have to be bold and remove courses not fit for purpose today and ensure that new courses going through validation demonstrate a strong business case for need.