In January 2012 I spoke at a UK Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE) conference entitled ‘Postgraduates: the Forgotten Sector’.
This was a few months after the Government’s White Paper on higher education, which had largely focused on the new finance arrangements for undergraduates and the apparatus of information and regulation needed to support this.
Following its appearance in last week’s budget statement, the second in succession, and the launch of today’s consultation on postgraduate finance, postgraduate education can no longer be considered forgotten. It has, however, taken three years of work – by sector and independent bodies as well as government – to get to this point.
During the week of the UKCGE conference, the HEFCE Board had just decided to increase its funding of postgraduate education by £70 million per year, a step described by Professor Michael Farthing, then Chair of the 1994 Group, as ‘a breakthrough moment for postgraduate study’ [Financial Times, 2 February 2012]. This responded in part to a request in the same month’s Government grant letter for us to support postgraduate education as far as possible, whilst better evidence was gathered on its requirements.
During the months following, we began to put in place the measures necessary to demonstrate the characteristics of postgraduate education: the pattern of provision, the students involved, institutions’ strategies , their contributions once in employment and how all this could change, not least given the new arrangements for undergraduates.
During 2014-15, we have been running a pilot Postgraduate Support Scheme to test ways of stimulating progression to taught postgraduate education, supporting 20 projects across the country. A common theme arising from this and our previous work is the centrality of finance (though not only finance) in decisions about whether to progress to postgraduate study and the potential for clearly communicated support arrangements to address this.
This provides the context for the postgraduate finance options on which the government is consulting between now and May, and for the £50 million put in place for 10,000 awards of £10,000 to be made to masters students as an interim measure during 2015-16.
If, as the government has indicated, this will be new money and additional to current arrangements, there is the potential for postgraduate study to become possible for a large number of students who could not otherwise. It will, though, be important to engage with the full range of possibilities arising from the announcements.
Our pilot projects are, for example, demonstrating how universities can work with employers to address advanced and specialist skills needs through masters courses in areas such as data analytics and sustainable energy. We are also exploring how models such as professional doctorates can extend vocational and technical education to the highest levels.
Given the diversity of postgraduate education, there is the potential for government initiative to support investment by a range of parties. That means individual students with government backing, but it also extends to universities, who finance a great deal of postgraduate study themselves, and to their partners in both industry and the public services.