Widening participation for postgraduates?

I'm not quite sure when or how it happened, but suddenly we are all madly concerned about widening access to postgraduate study. Before Christmas I wrote about the postgraduate policy vacuum - that the government seemed to have no fixed plans to build postgraduates into national strategy in either research or teaching. But policy, it would seem, abhors a vacuum, and since the New Year we have seen a flurry of activity from within and outside BIS. The 1994 Group chose to make postgraduates the issue in early January. The Higher Education Commission launched an inquiry into postgraduate education. BIS had a roundtable. HEFCE replaced the teaching grant at taught postgraduate level for bands A-C. And last week the Open University held a national conference on widening participation to postgraduate education.
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I’m not quite sure when or how it happened, but suddenly we are all madly concerned about widening access to postgraduate study. Before Christmas I wrote about the postgraduate policy vacuum – that the government seemed to have no fixed plans to build postgraduates into national strategy in either research or teaching.

But policy, it would seem, abhors a vacuum, and since the New Year we have seen a flurry of activity from within and outside BIS. The 1994 Group chose to make postgraduates the issue in early January and today have published a report about postgraduate education. The Higher Education Commission have launched an inquiry into postgraduate education. BIS had a roundtable. HEFCE replaced the teaching grant at taught postgraduate level for bands A-C. And last week, the Open University held a national conference on widening participation to postgraduate education.

In reality, of course, widening participation to postgraduate study has been on the periphery of policy for some time. It was flagged in the Milburn and Smith reviews in 2009 and 2010. ESRC published a literature review on widening access to research degrees in 2010.  A sprinkling of academic researchers have addressed widening participation at postgraduate level, most notably Dr Paul Wakeling at York, although there are bound to be others.

In years to come, perhaps, researchers will review the growth of this policy area and make some kind of narrative sense of it. Right now it is clear that there is no consensus about what widening participation to postgraduate study even means, let alone what it would look like.

At the most fundamental level we are unclear on whether we would like more postgraduate students overall, or whether we would like the current cohort of postgraduates to be about the same size but more representative of society as a whole. Or possibly just more representative of the undergraduate population.

Even if we say that WP for postgrads is both these things, we need to tear up at least some of the traditional WP rulebook.

The discourse on widening participation takes it as axiomatic that entering higher education is a good thing on an individual level. But postgraduate study is not the right thing for everyone, and we are not very clear which people it is the right thing for.

Is the aim to get the most disadvantaged into postgraduate education or to minimise the barriers to entry for whoever happens to face them, even if that person is solidly middle class and just happens not to have a few spare thousand pounds lying around to put towards postgraduate study?

WP relies on contextual information about applicants for study, such as socio-economic background or an appropriate proxy such as low-participation neighborhoods, family income or eligibility for free school meals. Admittedly these measures can be inappropriate for mature applicants to undergraduate courses. But when someone has come through an undergraduate degree, perhaps at a highly selective institution, the term ‘disadvantaged’ seems…misapplied. Working-class, sure. Disadvantaged, probably not.

WP assumes that enforcing upfront payment of tuition fees is unfair and discriminatory and ensures that we have an elaborate system of loans and progressive repayments so that nobody need worry about whether they can afford to study an undergraduate degree. At postgraduate level,policymakers do not see a contradiction in demanding to see evidence of a problem before being persuaded that upfront fee payment is unfair.

We need a new set of rules, but before we can figure out what those are, we need to agree on what the game is.

4 responses to “Widening participation for postgraduates?

  1. I found it interesting when the new fees regime was introduced barely a word was said about how much easier it made for the less wealthy to access postgraduate education. Even after months had passed people didn’t seem to realise that there were no longer up-front payments required. Had I not received a studentship I’d not have been able, even on a pretty decent salary, to enrol on my PhD. I spent all of the first year of my MA worrying that I wouldn’t have enough money saved to pay for the second year, and I spent a nervous few months waiting to find discover if I’d won the studentship for my PhD, knowing that I’d have to withdraw if I hadn’t. So I’ll be very interested to see any research into the numbers and demographic of those who pursue postgraduate studies over the next few years.

  2. I shall follow this debate with interest too. Back in the 70s university was not an option offered to me or considered by me. Girls like me didn’t go to Uni – I went into hairdressing. Years down the line I entered university as a mature student with an NVQ 3 and a whole lot of life and work experience.
    I did well, got a First and now want to do PG. But guess what? Correct – I can’t afford to!
    Still seeking my first job as a graduate of Education Studies and Sociology, it seems my options are to a) Go back to jobs I’ve already done b) Take up an admin job in HE. Studentships in my field are rare and in my case they need to be local due to other commitments.
    It is frustrating when you want to pursue an academic career but face barriers once more. I really hope we see change soon. WP has it’s critics but has given opportunity to many able people. Surely we should now be allowed to continue our upward social mobility to the dizzy heights of academia, preferably before I’m 60! We need to continue to encourage home grown talent from less affluent backgrounds as a nod to UK research and as a legacy for our children.

  3. This is such an interesting area. I am/was a classic WP student who has managed to work my way to becoming a senior lecturer- but I still haven’t managed to finish my PhD yet!

    The concept of disadvantage is interesting, because the assumption that the disadvantages you had pre HE start to disappear is not always true. Sure, there are more academic and professional choices which might be available, but the social and economic issues which you may have face pre university often remain- and with added complications.

    After university, my main option was to return to the mouldy council house where my parents still live- and whom whilst proud, still struggled to engage with me or understand what I did. Whilst I had some new uni friends ( although not many as I had to work thru uni), my old friends were lovely people but not people whom had contacts and networks to help me get a job. As my family grew, I realised that I would never have the levels of support ( and inherited wealth!) which some of my colleagues experience.

    Hence, I have worked like mad, used my working class knowledge to cheaply secure the material goods which make me ‘look’ middle class, and kept an eye out for any students I can help in a similar situation. I realise I am incredibly lucky and know that I could be way more disadvantaged, but I sometimes tell my story just to alert people to the fact that WP is a lifelong process for both those enabling and experiencing it.

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