Response to HEC Postgraduate Inquiry

Gill Clarke, Pam Denicolo and Angus Burns represented UKCGE at the launch of the Higher Education Commission’s report on Postgraduate Education at Westminster on 29 October 2012. 

Response to HEC Postgraduate Inquiry

The launch was attended by individuals with long-standing interests in and, as Barry Sheerman MP said in his introduction, a passion for UK postgraduate education. They included members of Parliament, the Committee of Inquiry that produced the report, and representatives of universities and other organisations who had submitted evidence. The Inquiry was chaired by Dr Graham Spittle CBE, supported by PolicyConnect (in particular Joel Mullan) and sponsored by the Sutton Trust and PwC.

The Council welcomes some of the key messages identified in the HEC Postgraduate Education Inquiry Report, for example the need to integrate postgraduate education in the conceptual framework’ (p.6) of higher education and other public policy-makers, and the profile-raising assertion that Postgraduates must be included in our thinking about how the [UK higher] education sector should look and what it needs to succeed’ (p.18). We also welcome the focus on improving our understanding about postgraduates’ employment outcomes (as distinct from graduates in general), and the needs of a wide range of employers (Recommendations 1 and 2). Recognition of the diversity of the UK postgraduate sector is evident throughout the report. This is to be welcomed, especially the Inquiry’s acknowledgement of the social and wider, cultural significance’ (p17) of postgraduate education as well as its economic impact, a factor also emphasised in the European University Association’s (EUA) recently published CODOC report (Jørgensen, 2012). This, combined with the acknowledgement that postgraduate education is in danger of becoming the new frontier of widening participation’ (p.43), will help to raise awareness of the access needs of potential entrants to postgraduate education and the role of postgraduates in continuing to build the UK’s (and global) intellectual capital. In this context, the higher education sector needs to be very clear to both students and employers what the purposes and outcomes of different postgraduate programmes are, especially the benefits for self-funding students who are investing in their future.

However, we are concerned about the statements made in the report about the UK doctorate’s narrowness’, in the absence of any significant evidence about the precise nature of the problem or comparisons with doctoral outcomes in other countries. The apparent lack of understanding that the main purpose of a doctorate is to demonstrate the ability to conduct original research and make a contribution to knowledge is worrying, especially when combined with the suggestion that the doctorate could become broader rather than continuing to focus on a narrow research problem. This appears not to recognise the depth of disciplinary knowledge gained from studies and experience leading to the doctoral programme and the broad, transferable skills acquired through doing and learning about research. Such negativity could damage the UK doctorate which arguably has the most varied forms in the world (some of which have been developed in partnership with the professions and employers), and the report lacks suggestions about where we might look for different models.

Chapter 6 – Funding Postgraduate Education – will be of interest to everyone in the sector. Figure 5 (p.50) and Figure 8 (p.56) show the range of funding sources already in existence for postgraduate research students and it is striking that 38% of research students and the majority’ of taught postgraduate students are self-funding. As the Russell Group points out in the report, the UK invests less than 1% of public funding in higher education, one of the lowest levels in the OECD’ (p.52). As the EUA CODOC report confirms (Jørgensen, 2012: 46, Figure 17), among our EC partners, the UK ranks 11th in the amount of research and development expenditure as a percentage of GDP, behind Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany Austria, France, Slovenia, Belgium, the Netherlands and Ireland, in that order. The priority given to creative funding options for postgraduates in the report is therefore welcomed. The role of employers will be key, and their contributions should reflect the benefits they gain from recruiting personnel with postgraduate qualifications, whether they come through a vocational or industrially-based programme or a more academic postgraduate background. Important non-financial contributions from employers can also make a difference, especially with current demographics and the need to improve the skills of mature workers, where time off work to study can be a real incentive for potential postgraduates. Universities and employers should provide greater flexibility and feasible opportunities for further study for people already in employment. This would enable more part-time, working students to fulfil the demands of postgraduate study and increase the cultural, intellectual and earning capital of organisations through continuing professional development. We therefore agree with the report’s suggestion that introducing tax incentives could encourage employers to share the funding and risk of educating postgraduates, and might be a way forward (pp.48–49; 68–69).

The Inquiry’s acceptance of the complexity and diversity of the postgraduate sector is the first step to many of the report’s recommendations, including meeting different employer needs and assuring the quality of our graduates and their research outputs so they can compete for jobs globally. Different employers are looking for different capabilities. In recruiting a postgraduate, a UK SME might be looking for different qualities from those sought by large multi-nationals, and academic employers such as universities are also seeking additional skills, such as in teaching or public engagement, in addition to research abilities. Section 3 of the report partially addresses this point through considering skills shortages. In the work that the Higher Education Commission is recommending be undertaken by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (Recommendation 2), UKCGE suggests that it would be equally valuable, especially in the context of global competition, to classify the skills employers can already identify in the best UK postgraduates. Bearing in mind the variety of graduate courses, outcomes and employers, might it be possible to construct a typology of characteristics that could be linked to the UK qualification descriptors for masters and doctoral graduates, that a variety of employers agree are valuable, i.e. the core characteristics that mean postgraduates are employable? Obvious examples are: independent and creative thinking, good analytical skills, report writing, independent research investigation, commercial awareness, team work, good people and communication skills (e.g. the ability to explain complex technical ideas to different audiences), integrity, and, especially if working in a small organisation, the flexibility to turn your hand to different tasks. We would then have a better idea of what is valued, and could try to deliver it. The term postgraduate skills’ does not begin to reflect the depth and breadth of this issue and perhaps under-sells the particular attributes of postgraduates with different backgrounds and outcomes.

At the launch it was made clear that the purpose of the Inquiry was to make recommendations and that putting them into practice would take further work and much effort. Each of the cross-party group of MPs who spoke welcomed the report and its recommendations, but none was able to confirm any financial or practical commitment to implementation. Nevertheless it is a step forward to have public, cross-party, political recognition of the value of postgraduate education to the social and economic fabric of the UK.

The sector faces some challenges in implementing some of the report’s recommendations, which will require financial and principled commitment not only from government, but from employers, university management and other higher education sector bodies. As we are continually reminded, other countries are snapping at our heels to become world leaders in educating postgraduates, and the reputation of UK postgraduate programmes must be maintained if we are to have a chance of maintaining our global position, let alone improving it. 

Gill Clarke, Rosemary Deem, Pam Denicolo and Mick Fuller

05 November 2012


Jørgensen, T.E. (2012). CODOC – Co-operation on doctoral education between Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe. Brussels: European University Association.