Innovations in postgraduate education

Kim Ansell asks whether recent Hefce statistics about the rise in taught postgraduate student numbers will trigger some development and innovation in the postgraduate offering. 

Last week Hefce reported that the numbers of UK and other European Union students starting full-time and part-time postgraduate (PG) taught courses increased substantially in 2016-17. A 22% increase in full-time entrants to taught PG courses, and an 8.6 per cent increase in part-time entrants to postgraduate taught (PGT) courses.

While Hefce suggests that “The increases in entrants are likely to be attributable to the introduction of postgraduate loans”, it is possible that there other factors at play here and perhaps the introduction of loans is only part of the story. Putting money into the system will clearly make a difference, but we suspect that one should look further afield for a more holistic explanation, indeed an explanation for which universities themselves can take some of the credit.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the higher education sector is driving some of this change and responding to demand with foresight and creativity. There is a sense that PG education could be a game changer for UK higher education creating a strong economic value proposition in changing times.

A 2014 report Masters with a purpose by UUK and Hecsu reported that ‘Employers’ requirements for Masters-level qualifications are linked to their requirements for specific skills, abilities and knowledge. Employers emphasise the value of practical, work-related experience during Masters courses’.

It goes on to assert that in many areas, e.g. sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics, for PGT graduates, employment prospects are good – and better than for undergraduates, with generally higher rates of employment at six months after qualification.

The report also indicates that, those who have a Master’s degree combined with some sort of ‘hands on’ experience, stand out to employers. They see them as more employable and so it is in the interests of the university to understand how they can incorporate those skills into their Masters programmes and understand where their PG fit into the market.

There are other benefits for the university as well as the direct employability of their graduates, tapping into affordable research and development environments being an obvious one for some disciplines.

A number of innovative programmes have appeared in recent years, and it isn’t just student loans which is stimulating this. The rather overused but still very relevant issue of employability is the main one, as graduates look to demonstrate a competitive edge over their peers and move up the career ladder more quickly. Along with career imperatives, advances in technology have made Masters degrees more accessible as they are no longer geographically constrained in many cases.

The Aston University MSc in Professional Engineering and  UCL’s Professional Accountancy Msc, are just two examples of innovation and collaboration in this area.

Beyond the Masters landscape, The provision of professional doctorates in English HE (2016) published by Hefce, is unlikely to have reached the radar of most employers or professional associations, possibly not even all universities. Originally in engineering, education, business psychology and health, Professional Doctorates (PD) have been growing over the last five years and while still extremely modest in volume and in a limited number of disciplines, they are targeted at experienced professionals and practitioners working in a professional context. Professional training and/or development of practitioners is traditionally the domain of professional associations and yet PDs are now moving into new areas such as social sciences, science and technology and the arts.

There does not seem to have been a strong demand from employers at the time the Hefce study was done, with one exception: the NHS funds a PD in Clinical Psychology as an entry route and licence to practise.

The Hefce report recommends that professional sector bodies and institutions develop a more strategic basis for provision of PDs. I personally see great opportunities for such collaboration and encourage universities, professional associations and employers to join forces to take these initiatives forward while the PG education trend is on the up.

Some challenges to be addressed are:

  • PDs thus far have provided little evidence of impact on professional practice, something that professional bodies might be well placed to evidence and measure;
  • Development of PD provision is not a strategic priority for most HEIs, but a partnership approach could address such issues as reach, relevance, return on investment, efficient use of expertise and resource to deliver. The list goes on.

The combined experience of research, teaching, professional expertise and current practice could bring quality and reputation to new products in this arena, and to the stakeholders involved.

Of course there is still the issue of demand but if PDs really have the potential to make a significant contribution to professional practice then it must be in the interests of employers, professional associations and the higher education sector to make it work.

There is undoubtedly this level of collaboration, along with a frenzy of post budget ‘noise’, on Level 6 apprenticeship degrees. For example the Chartered Manager Degree Apprenticeship has been developed by a group of employers, in partnership with a number of universities as ‘providers’ and the Chartered Management Institute (CMI). Level 7 Degree Apprenticeships are clearly on the horizon but the prospect of a Level 8 Apprenticeship is probably still some way off, although clearly in the mix when considering the future of PG education.

I wonder how this will impact on PDs and their potential development or demise. Mature students undertaking PG study might opt for high level apprenticeship schemes that speak to the attractive employability criteria mentioned above. The alternative is that universities focus their PG provision on more academic pathways while developing apprenticeship schemes in partnership. A similar question has been asked in open forums about PGT and degree apprenticeships. Where universities have existing programmes with large employers, will new degree apprenticeships programmes ‘cannibalise’ places on these existing programmes?…

So, apprenticeship degrees might not encroach, as such, on PDs, but there will be a delicate strategic planning exercise to ensure that the pipeline of PG products which universities develop fits with the supply of postgraduate students that the university is able to access or attract.

Some of the questions they might need to ask themselves are:

  • Can we better support suitably qualified graduates or experienced professionals?
  • Which of our strategic partners could offer the best chance of success in product development, (however you choose to measure success)?
  • What does our employer network want?

The rise in PG taught student numbers in the UK is very welcome by all stakeholders and I applaud our universities for innovating in this territory but more must be done to harness this success and collaboration is key!

It is a complex landscape and for leaders thinking about the challenges discussed above, and in making these strategic moves/decisions, some assistance in analysing and evaluating the blockages, the enablers, the options and learning from good practice might be required.

Kim Ansell is managing consultant in the Consultancy team of the Leadership Foundation.  Additional research – Will Wade, research and policy analyst.