Paul Wakeling investigated the issues surrounding postgraduate access in the UK. The research found that individuals’ background characteristics were associated with their likelihood of progressing from a first degree to a higher degree. While finance is an important issue, attention also needs to be focused on the gender and ethnic inequalities.
There has been something of a groundswell of opinion in the last year or so about an impending crisis in postgraduate education in the UK. Prompted in large part by the sweeping changes to undergraduate funding introduced by the Coalition in England (and the knock-on changes in the rest of the UK), strong concern has been expressed from various quarters. We have had warnings of a postgraduate crisis, a view that postgraduate study is the ‘new frontier of widening participation’ and the threat that postgraduate study is ‘a social mobility timebomb’.
The Higher Education Commission’s comprehensive report on postgraduate education eloquently and soberly identified the reasons why postgraduate education matters. Top of their list was postgraduates’ economic contribution. In a high-skills knowledge-driven economy we need people who are very highly trained with specialist knowledge and research skills. In some sectors an undergraduate degree is no longer sufficient to equip workers for their role or a mid-career update is needed. Some professions have become, de juris or de facto postgraduate entry – teaching and social work are examples of the former, journalism perhaps the latter. Moreover in a tight jobs market and with first degrees becoming ubiquitous, a postgraduate degree can offer an advantage.
As a society then, it is in the UK’s interest to ensure those who can benefit from postgraduate study have the opportunity to do so. There are pay-offs for both economic growth and fairness/social justice and the two are potentially mutually reinforcing. Similar points have been made now by many commentators, including Alan Milburn, the Sutton Trust and most recently, the Centre Forum think tank. Whilst the message does bear repeating, concrete evidence and proposals for action are long since overdue.
The report for the Higher Education Academy which I have recently completed with my colleague Gillian Hampden-Thompson seeks to add to what we now know about postgraduate access. We investigated three aspects of the transition from a first degree to a higher degree for students from the UK and EU studying in British higher education in 2009-10 and 2010-11. Firstly, we looked at the movement of graduates between the UK home nations at postgraduate level. Secondly, we analysed movement across institutions in the transition from first degree to higher degree. Thirdly, we measured rates of transition according to graduates’ background characteristics, such as gender, ethnicity and socio-economic background.
The introduction of annual undergraduate tuition fees of £9,000 in England has prompted concerns that unprecedented student debt levels will trigger a crisis in the recruitment of English postgraduates in 2015, when the first students subject to the new arrangements will graduate. We can get some indication of what might happen, albeit imperfect, from considering whether the existing differences in student funding across the UK have resulted in different rates of postgraduate participation. Perhaps surprisingly, we found that English graduates from English institutions, where annual tuition fees were £3,000+, had slightly higher rates of progression to a postgraduate degree than Scottish graduates from Scottish institutions who paid no tuition fees. Scots graduates were slightly more likely to enter a research degree than the English, but this may be due to the longer undergraduate degree in Scotland rather than financial considerations. Perhaps we should be more concerned about rapidly rising postgraduate fees as a deterrent to postgraduate access than undergraduate debt.
The main country-based difference we observed was a much higher rate of progression to higher degrees for EU graduates of UK institutions. We also found little evidence of ‘brain drain’ from the UK to overseas institutions for postgraduate study (only about 1 in 20 of those taking a higher degree reported doing so abroad).
While country-level factors are less prominent than expected, institutional differences come to the fore. Whether or not a graduate progresses to a higher degree is closely associated with the kind of university they attended. Russell Group universities dominate among those entering a higher degree. The University of Cambridge alone sent as many graduates to a research degree in 2009-10 – 2011-12 as all of the University Alliance institutions combined. Whereas about one in six Russell Group graduates progressed to a higher degree, among GuildHE institutions – the newest universities – this dropped to one in 20. This hides quite large variations within mission groups. Certain institutions retain many of their graduates as postgraduates, whereas others are net losers. A few manage to keep many graduates and also attract graduates from elsewhere. The large research-intensive London institutions are especially strong here, with UCL, King’s College, Imperial and LSE all showing a net gain of hundreds of postgraduates each year. Apparently the university a graduate attends greatly affects whether they move on to a higher degree.
Finally, we found that individuals’ background characteristics were associated with their likelihood of progressing from a first degree to a higher degree. Postgraduate funding – or rather the absence of it – has attracted the most media and political attention, with two proposals from Centre Forum and another from NUS arguing for a postgraduate loans system to follow on from undergraduate loans. We certainly found differences in progression to higher degrees by social class, with the most socio-economically advantaged groups most likely to enter taught higher degrees and, in particular, doctorates. However these differences were less stark than at undergraduate level and had shifted little in comparison with a study of the 2001-02 – 2004-05 cohorts. Less obviously related to the ability or willingness to pay were the sharper differences we found in the rate of progression to postgraduate study for men and women. Unlike at all previous levels of education, men were more likely than women to progress to a higher degree, regardless of first degree subject. Similarly worrying differences in progression were evident by ethnicity, with especially low rates for Black Caribbean and Bangladeshi graduates.
In considering what to do about postgraduate access, it is important that we do not focus entirely on finance. Of course the availability of up-front funds or credit will affect whether someone can enter a higher degree, but our research suggests that funding is necessary but not sufficient to widen participation at the highest level. Addressing gender and ethnic inequalities, and differences across institutions should also be a focus of attention for all those who care about the future of our universities and society.
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Paul Wakeling is a lecturer in education at the University of York. He tweets as @pbjwakeling