Build evidence base to support postgraduate education

Today the Higher Education Commission will formally present the findings from its inquiry into postgraduate education. This report is timely because it highlights some of the key issues that have been receiving considerable attention of late.

Since the publication of the Browne review in 2010 there have been concerns that postgraduate students are not getting the attention they deserve. A report from the 1994 Group concluded that there was an emerging postgraduate crisis which could damage the UK’s future economic and social success. Alan Milburn has warned of a ‘social mobility time bomb’. His recent report recommends that a new funding model for postgraduate students should be explored to ensure that ability to pay is not a barrier to postgraduate study.

Economic dimensions
We often hear that postgraduate students are vital to the future of the UK economy. Growth in jobs is expected to come from high-skilled occupations as we become increasingly reliant on knowledge-based industries. Business leaders, such as James Dyson, frequently talk about the need for more people with postgraduate level skills. This argument seems obvious, but the truth is that at the moment we only have a limited amount of evidence to support this view.

The Wilson review of university business collaborations raised this gap in the evidence base.  It asked Universities UK to look more closely at the impact of postgraduate study. Over the coming months we will be working closely with universities, employers and students to better understand its value and how universities and businesses are already working together to develop courses and provide students with the necessary skills. By looking at what is out there at the moment, we hope to identify any gaps or mismatches so we can better plan to meet future demand.

The Higher Education Commission’s report today looks at three key areas of interest.

Immigration and international students
As the Commission points out, much of the recent growth in postgraduate student numbers is due to increased numbers of international students. Yet, the government’s current immigration policies are limiting the ability of UK business to retain these international students. This has clear economic consequences. Similarly the drive to reduce net migration creates vulnerabilities for both institutions and provision in particular disciplines.

Access and funding
Of particular concern is the availability of financial support for postgraduate students, who are not able to access income contingent loans (similar to those available to undergraduates, who pay back loans after they graduate as a proportion of their income over £21,000). Postgraduate students are often self-funded, either through personal savings, family support or commercial bank loans. The professional and career development loan [PCDL] is not fit for purpose and we need to consider alternatives.

Need for an evidence base
Of greatest importance here, however, is the need to address the ‘data lacuna’. At undergraduate level we have developed a comprehensive understanding of the socio-economic characteristics of students. We have a pretty good idea of what motivates them, how they make decisions and what barriers exist to entering higher education. We need to develop this same understanding at postgraduate level so we can develop policies which address the barriers and encourage participation. This is not a straightforward process and we must be careful not simply to repeat what we have learned at undergraduate level.

For one thing, the postgraduate student population is much more diverse. Most students study part-time, many have spent time in employment before returning to study and most are paying up front for studies. The data that we collect must reflect this. The indicators we use at undergraduate level to monitor participation rates (such as free school meals, parental income and postcode data) are unlikely to be as useful at postgraduate level.

We need to start being more proactive about postgraduate education – we know what the problems are. Building the evidence base seems like a good place to start to help us find some solutions.

About Liz Bell

Policy and data analyst at Universities UK
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