Taught postgraduate degrees: are they just about the job? (UK)

By Joanna Williams

The rise of the taught master’s course has come with a troubling shift in focus towards ‘employability’

“I feel guilty for finding it all so interesting,” a student on a taught master’s in history told me recently. My surprise must have been palpable because she went on to explain: “It’s just with the expense of it all, you have to tell people you’re doing it to get a job; otherwise it seems like an indulgence, really.”

The idea that postgraduate education is primarily concerned with future employability is a creeping orthodoxy. Sadly, it seems that these days very few postgraduate students are happy to admit they are driven solely by a love of their subject and a desire to learn more. The results of the latest Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey make it very clear that students’ motivations for undertaking postgraduate study are dominated by the thought of their future job prospects: just 25 per cent say they are motivated only by an interest in their subject.

Students have always had individual and often instrumental desires for pursuing further study, but what concerns me is the way universities today so often aim to meet, rather than challenge, such motivations.

Postgraduate courses are, of course, big business for UK universities and have provided institutions with an increasing source of revenue over at least the past two decades. In recent years, the cap on the number of undergraduate students that universities are allowed to admit, combined with the removal of the block teaching grant, has led many institutions to focus recruitment on fee-paying postgraduates who can be enrolled in unlimited numbers and at any price the market will sustain. As a recent survey published in these pages reported, fees for taught postgraduate courses now range from £3,400 to £27,552, and costs are substantially higher than this for students on some highly specialised master’s programmes.

Factors that may have driven up postgraduate fees include the threatened withdrawal of Higher Education Funding Council for England funding for taught postgraduate provision, the rise in undergraduate tuition fees and a decline in the number of overseas students. At the same time, research councils have decided to stop providing financial support to students on taught master’s programmes, and postgraduate students cannot access Student Loans Company help for either tuition fees or living expenses. Postgraduate students are forced to make private arrangements to fund their education and are usually dependent upon some combination of commercial loans, family support, institutional bursaries and earned income. The need to have access to private finance has prompted much discussion about growing social inequalities in access to postgraduate provision.

There is concern that this triple whammy of higher fees, lack of finance and declining numbers of overseas students will have an impact upon recruitment to postgraduate courses. In the 2011-12 academic year there were 568,505 students registered on postgraduate-level courses, over one-fifth of all students according to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency. This represents a fall of 3.4 per cent on the previous year’s figures. However, viewed over a longer period of time, the rapid increase in the numbers of postgraduate students has been unprecedented. A parliamentary briefing paper reports that in 1990, 31,324 students at UK universities were awarded higher degrees; 10 years later this had risen to 86,535; and by 2010 the number had increased to 182,610.

Ever-increasing levels of personal debt, combined with an uncertain labour market, no doubt contribute to the perception among individual students that postgraduate study needs to enhance their employment prospects, and this may well be reflected in the specific form the expansion of postgraduate education has taken: the increase has almost all come in recruitment to taught courses as opposed to supervised research programmes. The numbers of qualifications obtained on taught postgraduate programmes grew from more than 180,000 in the academic year 2007-08 to more than 240,000 in 2011-12. But over the same period the numbers doing postgraduate research degrees stayed roughly the same at around 25,000 a year. This may indicate that growth is less about students pursuing cutting-edge research and an academic apprenticeship than it is about gaining the qualifications necessary to secure any career. It is interesting to note that the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, with their more traditional academic and research-focused postgraduate courses, are seeing less growth in this area than the likes of the universities of Buckingham and Bedford, which offer more vocationally oriented and structured provision. The drive towards vocationalism is further reflected in the taught courses students are opting to take: in the 2011-12 academic year the number of postgraduates on programmes in business and administrative studies exceeded 110,000. There were more than 90,000 education postgraduates and more than 50,000 students on courses allied to medicine.

Source: Times Higher Education http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/features/taught-postgraduate-degrees-are-they-just-about-the-job/2007384.article