By Anthony Hudson
Postgraduate and undergraduate student numbers are at record highs. Some 408,000 students commenced full-time undergraduate study in 2016/17, a 1 percent increase on 2015/16 and 90,600 students embarked on a full-time taught postgraduate course, a 22 per cent increase on the previous year. The concerns about initial access to higher education and widening participation on entry have now shifted to differential education outcomes between student groups and their progression post-graduation to further study or into employment.
Through the Catalyst fund HEFCE have committed £7.5 million to support institutional projects designed to address the barriers to student success, which result in differential outcomes for students with widening participation characteristics. The groups the projects are designed to benefit include: students from lower socio-economic groups, black and minority ethic students, disabled students, mature students and those who study part-time. In the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) guidance for 2018-19 access agreements; understanding and responding to the challenges faced by different groups of students is one of the strategic priorities institutions are expected to address (OFFA, 2017). But for many learners, particularly those from widening participation backgrounds, the barriers to study at undergraduate level are replicated at postgraduate level.
Undiscovered country or the next frontier in widening participation?
Widening postgraduate participation has been described as the ‘undiscovered country’ (Hudson, 2013: 151). Whilst there is a well-developed body of literature and mature policy on initial access to higher education, in comparison widening postgraduate participation is under researched and has received limited policy attention. The Panel on Fair Access to the Professions (2009) recognised that a postgraduate qualification was necessary for many professional careers and enabled access to competitive sectors of the labour market. A number of subsequent reports (Smith et al, 2010; and 1994 Group, 2012) voiced concerns about the future of postgraduate education, describing postgraduate participation as ‘the next frontier of widening participation’ (Higher Education Commission, 2012:12).
In calling for changes to policy and practice, the reports set out detailed recommendations on: better understanding postgraduate provision and the postgraduate population; assessing the demand for postgraduate skills; and widening postgraduate participation. The arguments for doing so are made in terms of both economic health and social justice.
Despite numerous reports the policy response has been somewhat limited. Having identified finance as a major barrier to widening postgraduate progression, HEFCE funded the Postgraduate Support Scheme (PSS). Informed by a pilot PSS in 2014/15, the scheme provided scholarships for taught postgraduate courses in 2015/16. An evaluation of the scheme (Wakeling et al 2017a) reported that data collection and monitoring needed to be improved in order to evaluate impact. Whilst there was some evidence for institutional impact, with a strengthened commitment to widening postgraduate participation, in many other institutions, PSS ‘…has not led to a substantial change in policy or practice’ (Wakeling et al, 2017a: 5).
Widening postgraduate participation or widening inequality?
Prior to the PSS initiative and the subsequent introduction of postgraduate loans, studies identified inequalities in postgraduate progression (Wakeling and Hampden-Thompson, 2013) and further that ‘…existing inequalities are transmitted more strongly across generations and social mobility falls’ ( 266).
Drawing on Labour Force Survey data (LFS) Wakeling & Laurison (2017:552) conclude: ‘that social class inequalities not only persist at postgraduate level, but have widened over time.’ Consequently those institutions which have a demonstrable commitment to widening participation will be key in widening postgraduate participation (Wakeling et al, 2017b).
Loans alone are not enough – in many cases they will not cover the full cost of study. Prospective postgraduates may also be surprised to discover that a number of their chosen institutions charge an application fee. Stubbs and Wakeling (2017) reported that many Russell Group institutions charge an application fee for taught postgraduate courses which ranges from £25.00 to £75.00. Making multiple applications could therefore become an expensive proposition, more so if additional costs for travel and accommodation are incurred to attend open days and interviews.
However, as Wakeling et al (2017b) note, it is still too early to determine the full impact of postgraduate loans and the impact of undergraduate debt is unknown. Clearly more research is required. In the meantime it will be interesting to see whether the newly created Office for Students (OfS), which will replace HEFCE and OFFA when it is fully operational in April 2018, will take a proactive approach to develop a more informed and comprehensive policy on widening postgraduate participation.
Hudson, A. (2013) ‘The undiscovered country: widening participation to postgraduate study’, in Hill, M., Hudson, A., Jones, P., Renton, R., Saunders, D., and Storan, J. (eds.) Widening Access to Higher Education in Divided Communities. FACE: London.
OFFA (2017), Strategic guidance: developing your 2018-19 access agreement. OFFA: Bristol. Available at: https://www.offa.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Strategic-guidance-developing-your-2018-19-access-agreement-FINAL.pdf. Accessed: 21.02.2017.
Panel on Fair Access to the Professions (2009) Unleashing Aspiration: The Final Report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions. Cabinet Office: London.
Stubbs, J. & Wakeling, P. (2017) The hidden costs of applying for postgraduate study. Times Higher Education (22.08.2017).
Available at: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/hidden-costs-applying-postgraduate-study. Accessed: 18.10.2017.
Wakeling, P. and G. Hampden-Thompson (2013). Transition to higher degrees across the UK: an analysis of national, institutional and individual differences. York: HEA.
Wakeling, P., Hampden-Thompson, G. and Hancock, S. (2017b), Is undergraduate debt an impediment to postgraduate enrolment in England?. British Educational Research Journal. doi:10.1002/berj.3304. Accessed: 18.10.2017.
Wakeling, P., Hancock, S, and Ewart, A. (2017a). Evaluation of the Postgraduate Support Scheme 2015/16: Report to HEFCE. HEFCE: Bristol.
Wakeling, P. & Laurison, D. (2017) Are postgraduate qualifications the ‘new frontier of social mobility’? British Journal of Sociology, 68(3):532-555.