Postgraduate study benefits individual students as well as the broader economy, and yet evidence suggests that many potential students are deterred. Chief among these deterrents is finance.
Postgraduate Support Scheme
To address this financial barrier, HEFCE launched the Postgraduate Support Scheme (PSS). This fund supported progression to postgraduate study for students who are currently under-represented—those students who are most put off by lack of finance.
The £25 million scheme launched in July 2013. It has supported 20 projects, across 40 institutions. It is the largest intervention to date in UK postgraduate education, and has supported more than 2,000 students.
It aims to widen access to postgraduate study and support national priorities of supplying highly skilled individuals for various employment sectors.
What did the projects do?
We have now received the programme analyst’s final report providing valuable evaluation of the pilot projects. Several themes emerged across the projects. They focused on financial supports, mentoring, and employability.
Projects tended to look at either a specific type of student (for example, care leavers or students with disabilities), or a specific type of programme (such as data science or engineering).
All involved some element of financial support: scholarships, bursaries, or work-placement salaries.
Curriculum development with employers
Several projects worked closely with relevant employers. They consulted them on course content and co-designed work-based projects in the place of, or on top of, dissertations.
Lancaster, for example, co-developed an industry-facing, multidisciplinary Data Science masters programme, to which it recruited 60 students. An Industry Steering Group guided its development. The group reviewed the content and structure of the programme, and advised the project to ensure it stays relevant as industry needs change.
Similarly, the University of Derby worked with industry partners to develop an MSc in innovative Engineering Solutions. It aimed to recruit more under-represented students, and to ensure a pipeline of future graduate employees into industry.
The project delivered fee waivers plus work placements as part of its ‘graduate scheme’. Students received an intensive semester of masters-level teaching, before doing a 24-week work placement, which included pitching a project to host employers. Employers then had the option to hire the student employee at the end of the programme.
Other projects sought to introduce flexibility to masters degrees. Nottingham Trent University, for example, created a new Multidisciplinary Masters programme.
By drawing on modules across many faculties, it allowed students to design a masters degree that suited their particular needs, and incorporated an industrial placement. To inform the design of the programme, the university worked closely with employers to understand their requirements and views.
Mentoring and employability
Brunel University London’s project had two main elements: to increase recruitment to their structural integrity engineering programme (to address acute skills shortages), and to support women’s progression to engineering courses. Brunel worked closely with employers to develop, and offer, a mentoring scheme, which provided students with key links to relevant work places.
The University of Essex tested two models of support. The first was a fee waiver to postgraduate students who mentored undergraduate students, and which provided its own accredited training opportunity. The second provided students with a paid work placement in place of a dissertation.
Some projects also conducted independent research into postgraduate education alongside their programme activities.
The University of Oxford, for example, developed a programme that included scholarships, paid research internships (to inspire undergraduates to pursue postgraduate study), support days throughout the year for PSS-award holders, and a research project using institutional application data to identify under-representation at postgraduate level.
Kingston University led a large, multi-institutional project, which tested the effectiveness of different levels of scholarship. In parallel it conducted a large research project into postgraduate students’ expectations before they enrolled, and explored how their expectations were borne out in reality.
University of Sheffield, in the same spirit, led a consortium of six Russell Group institutions. The project granted scholarships, developed activities in the area of information, advice and guidance (IAGs), investigated the potential of academic innovation in course development, and researched postgraduate education to contribute to our evidence base.
What can we learn from the projects?
The projects have given us valuable evidence about what is currently happening within postgraduate education, and what can work going forward. The scheme has helped nearly 2,000 students to study, and paved the way for future support.
It shows that there is demand for postgraduate study, especially among disadvantaged students, but that finance is a key barrier to students enrolling. Financial assistance is, therefore, crucial to encouraging greater numbers of students – and more diverse students – to take up study at this level. If the aim is to widen participation and recruit a more diverse student population, then more targeted funding is clearly needed.
The projects also show that employers and industry partners recognise the benefits. They can, and will, help to design, develop and deliver masters programmes which directly meet their needs, and provide a responsive, knowledgeable and skilled workforce. Such a partnership model, though, may be limited by scale and not suit all subjects.
We can also see that curriculum innovations are possible. We can even see that they are necessary to ensure the academic content of programmes match industrial challenges. Still, the evidence also suggests that there are barriers: innovation costs time and resource, and can be expensive without a guarantee of success.
Last but not least, the scheme has made it clear that, while a key barrier, finance is not the only challenge. Finance, and non-financial supports like information, advice and guidance, are necessary to support success at postgraduate level.
The PSS pilot projects were the first step of a three-stage process to support postgraduate students.
The second stage, the £10,000 scholarships for 2015-16, is currently underway. And we await details on the third stage: the proposed loan scheme mentioned by Government in the Autumn Statement 2014, and on which it consulted earlier in 2015.
We look forward to the Government’s response. We will also begin taking forward the lessons from the PSS pilots which underline just how far there is scope to develop a more supportive and dynamic postgraduate sector.
With thanks to Dr. Paul Wakeling, PSS Programme Analyst.