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.