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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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The Browne Review: Postgraduates

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

This is one of a series of posts in which I respond to the Browne review of higher education funding and student finance. Other posts will look at the implications of the Browne review for the arts and humanities, and at the possible impact on teaching and learning.

The Browne Review has little to say about postgraduate funding. Although it was formally within the remit of the committe to consider funding for taught postgraduates (not for researchers), the section on postgraduates occupies a mere page of a 64 page document.

Browne rejects the idea that postgraduates should receive similar support to undergraduates. Partly, he suggests that many postgraduates have access to private investment for their studies, whether through business, industry, or employer-supported schemes. It is certainly true that postgraduate students do have access to different types of funding to undergraduates, as well as to commercial loans (known as Career Development Loans) which do not charge interest for the period when the postgraduate is studying. 

However, Browne's blanket appraisal that some postgraduates have access to funding and that therefore "there is no compelling case for removing investment from undergraduate students to give it to postgraduate students" seems very odd. If the main result of the review of university funding will be that the costs of education are pushed from the state to the student, with universities having more autonomy to decide what to do with their income, then I fail to see how there will not be a potential pool of liberated investment - not tied by HEFCE to supporting one group or another - that could be in part redirected into postgraduate study.

And, despite what Browne says about postgraduates having access to private funding streams, there does need to be some public subsidy at the postgraduate level, if access is to be widened. Browne himself notes that:
In the evidence that has been presented to us, we do see that participation in postgraduate education by higher socio-economic groups is higher than for others.
For example, whilst only 7% of the general population have been privately educated, 14% of undergraduates and 17% of postgraduates have had this privilege. 

This seems to suggest that those private sources of funding are not as widespread as he earlier made out, and that as a consequence many postgraduates are self-funded; naturally, these will tend to be those who have the support of wealthy family or parents, or who have already got established careers. Browne's next conclusion is thus wishful-thinking at best, perhaps even naive: 
It is reasonable to suppose that access to postgraduate education is a function of the socio-economic make up of the undergraduate population – where the same trend exists – rather than anything else. Hence we should focus on improving access at the undergraduate level and that may over time help also to ensure that it is solely academic performance rather than social background that determines entry to postgraduate study.  
Can we really believe that increased tuition fees at the undergraduate level, even if they do somehow, remarkably, widen access here, will filter their effects up to postgraduate level in such a positive way? Over the last few years, the number of students seeking postgraduate qualifications has markedly increased, by around 20% between 2002 and 2009. Much of this is out of the necessity of an increasingly competitive jobs market, where first degree graduates realise that they need a second degree to differentiate themselves from their peers. Additionally, for those who can afford it (which is often true at the privileged university where I teach), I know from experience that with the graduate jobs market having slowed down during the recession, many undergraduates and their parents are taking the sensible step of self-funding an additional year of study, rather than spending time sitting on the dole.

Given these factors, assuming that the free market in higher education will see the cost of postgraduate courses increase in line with or even beyond that for undergraduate courses, but without being accompanied by appropriate maintenance support, postgraduate courses will remain biased towards the wealthy. To be fair, Browne does go on to call for postgraduate participation to be carefully monitored. However, Browne's belief that over time it will be "solely academic performance rather than social background that determines entry to postgraduate study" is hard to credence, given the budget cuts that are set to hit the research councils, which currently fund precisely those students who are academically most capable, generously supporting them through postgraduate study and into research careers.

Although the issue of fees and postgraduate support (or lack of it), is naturally the predominant focus of the Browne review, there is one other aspect that is worth noting for postgraduates. This is Browne's call that all university teachers ought to be qualified to teach only after taking an HEA accredited course. Whilst my own university is excellent at training postgraduates adequately before allowing them to teach, I know that not all postgraduates are so fortunate. Making training into a statutory requirement can only be a good thing, enhancing the skills - whether subsequently retained within academia or transferred out of it - of the postgraduate community. Of course, the question remains an open one of who is going to pay for training postgraduates, if support bodies like Vitae are going to see their funding hammered in the spending review, whilst there will not be - if Browne's proposals are followed - any reconsideration of how postgraduates are funded.

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Posted by Alistair at 7:50 am

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