Supporting postgraduate taught student transitions into and out of study

In this blog post Michelle Morgan (Kingston University) reflects on the key issues she highlighted in her keynote presentation at the HEA Enhancement Event 'Student transitions: journeying into, through and beyond higher education'. Michelle is Principal Investigator and Project Leader of the HEFCE-funded Postgraduate Experience Project.

We know that educating a massified and diversified  student body at higher education (HE) level has benefits for everyone: the individual, society and the economy, and it is for these reasons that governments, nationally and internationally, have been committed to increasing and widening participation at undergraduate and latterly postgraduate level. 

Between the mid-1990s and 2010, the UK saw a dramatic expansion in the ‘taught’ postgraduate (PGT) student body. Extensive research has been undertaken in the field of the student experience and learning and teaching at undergraduate level (e.g. Tinto, 1988; Thomas, 2002; Morgan, 2011), but there is only a limited, albeit a growing body of research, in the area of PGT study (e.g. Wakeling, 2005; Stuart et.al, 2008). This led to the Higher Education Commission commenting in 2012 that ‘Postgraduate education is a forgotten part of the sector’ (Higher Education Commission, 2012:17). Unfortunately since 2011, our postgraduate enrolments (especially part-time) in the UK have dramatically declined across all domiciled groups. 

In this keynote, I showed the level of decline and explained how complex the effective delivery of higher education has become.  This is due to the massification and diversification of the PGT student body and the changes in curriculum design, delivery, assessment and evaluation.  The changes mean that we can no longer adopt a ‘one size fits all approach’ in the effective delivery of academic and non-academic support to our postgraduate students throughout the student lifecycle.  And neither can we merely transfer support processes used at undergraduate level to postgraduate as support requirements are different. As a result, our job as educators has become very challenging.

 

Supporting postgraduate transitions into, through and out of study - Michelle Morgan from HEA_Blogs

 

Student experience practitioner model

Supporting the transitions of undergraduates and postgraduates in, through and out of study at the coal face is something I have done for many years.  When I led colleagues through the stages of my Student Experience Practitioner Model (see slideshow above), which every student must progress through (first contact and admissions, pre-entry, arrival and orientation, induction to study, reorientation, reinduction and outduction), it was received in a very enthusiastic way. Colleagues saw the logic of the stages and the themes I argue that we need to consider when supporting students and developing initiatives. I developed the framework over a number of years whilst working at faculty and university level to help me manage the complex UG and PGT student body to which I had to provide a high quality student experience. This included part-time and full-time students, direct entry students into years 2 and 3, those entering at PG level with accredited prior learning as well as intermission and returning students. It was essential to include all students and ensure no-one was left behind.

However, having a framework like the Student Experience Practitioner Model to help ensure that we support every student in, through and out of every transition stage is not enough.  We also need to consider a range of issues within that framework.

Decrease in PGT enrolments

We need to identify and understand why PGT enrolments are decreasing. Undoubtedly, fee levels and lack of access to funding to pay for postgraduate study has had an impact. I used the new findings from the Postgraduate Experience Project (PEP) to show colleagues the barriers and motivations applicants told us were factors across 11 UK universities. You will see from the slides that obtaining funding to pay for fees and living costs is a major access issue. However, I do not believe that this is the only reason for a decrease in enrolments.

To fully understand what is happening we need to understand the motivations of applicants wanting to study at PGT level and the barriers they face.  As a sector, we also need to ask ourselves some tough questions about what we do, what we deliver and whether it is still fit for purpose. The approaches and arguments I am hearing from across the sector to justify not asking the difficult questions and making change include we just need to do more of the same but better, only recruit academic staff who have PhDs and if we just hold our nerve, the natural cyclical pattern of decline and growth that ‘always happens and corrects itself’ will occur and we will be OK.

The reason why I don’t think we will be OK adopting the approaches and arguments above is that the UG and PG landscape has rapidly changed in the past 3 years and the new ‘rules’ of HE study (which is very different to what many of us are used to) has reduced sector funding and has massively increased student debt whilst increasing student demand for value for money and impacting on future choices. A government backed loan scheme is highly likely to help improve the situation especially amongst those under 30 years of age which it appears at present will be the target group.

Hard questions

The hard questions we need to ask ourselves as a sector and at institutional level are firstly, are our courses fit for purpose in terms of content, mode of study, timing and type of L&T delivery, skill acquisition and cost?  A delegate stated that he wanted to challenge my argument that we should make our courses more marketable. I sympathise with colleagues who feel that higher education should be seen as an environment for research and the love of studying, but that is not how the majority of students see HE today. This is one of the major shifts that have occurred. Applicants and students see HE as a means of getting a higher paid job upon graduation and they expect value for money. If they don’t see that our courses provide either of these, our offering becomes unwanted. And as a sector, we are not always good at managing applicant and student expectations regarding what undergraduate and postgraduate study is about. Universities sell their courses to applicants on the basis of employability outcomes and getting ahead. I don’t think I have ever seen a course sold on the basis that it is for people who love studying and want their soul nourished. I don’t call student customers, because as the classic gym analogy argues, just because you pay for gym membership, it doesn’t result in you getting fit because you have to put the effort in! However, students do consume education which should be delivered in a manner that equates with a high quality customer service.

Increasingly, it does feel that the student has to fit around the needs of the university rather than the university fitting around the needs of the student. For example, could the dramatic decline in part-time study be due to this mode of study being merged with fulltime study and delivered during the day rather than of an evening in order to save money? This delivery change may ‘appear’ cost effective to a faculty and university in terms of not having to extend the opening hours of a canteen and library, but to applicants it means difficulty in getting time off work during the day. No support from the employer can reduce applications which equal no income to the university.

Secondly, are masters’ qualifications really needed by business and industry or is it an argument that the HE sector has encouraged to increase uptake for its own survival? The Federation for Small Businesses argue that 99% of the UK economy is generated by small businesses that do not need Master’s graduates.  I think we should be actively engaging more with business and industry and rethinking the content and delivery of PGT study. For example, should we be accrediting modules instead of courses so that we have the flexibility for students to create their own course content and for us to run the modules as short courses over a weekend giving choice in how much someone pays and the time they need to invest? This seems a logical way forward.

Thirdly, is it sustainable and viable for so many universities to offer a wide range of postgraduate courses? Shouldn’t universities be focusing on  the specific provision that they are good at? Why are young master’s students the target of recruitment units when it is this part of the UK population that is declining in number until 2020? Can this shortfall really be made up by recruiting more overseas students and is this market really sustainable due to the increasing overseas competition that we face? The phrase ‘putting our eggs into one basket’ comes to mind. Is it not prudent to start looking at new markets such as the ‘mature’ and the ‘grey pound’ postgraduate even if this requires us to adapt our current offering? And why have we not introduced differential fees? Applicants and students are wise enough to know that delivering an MSc in Biomedical Science is more expensive than an MA in English Literature. If we had differential fees, it may just attract those back to HE who do love studying especially if they are retired and have the financial resources.

And lastly, should universities start thinking about other forms of financial support instead of waiting for and relying on the Government putting something into place in 2016/17? Some universities have taken the initiative (and bold step) and entered into partnerships with private funding providers other than Barclays and the Cooperative banks. In my mind this is a sensible approach. The introduction of a loan scheme will undoubtedly finally push up the level of postgraduate fees and this could push some applicants even further away from accessing this level of study.

Discussion

What the decline in enrolments at postgraduate level show is that something is very wrong with the postgraduate market and I don’t believe that waiting to see if it naturally corrects itself is an option. If we are really honest with ourselves, we know that a multifaceted approach is required to reverse the decline. What is happening in HE feels very much like England’s industrial revolution experience. We led the world in industrial advancement, but because we didn’t evolve and adapt at the speed of our competitors, we fell behind.

We quickly need to ask the hard questions, find answers and put solutions in place. We need new thinking for new problems. As Albert Einstein said ‘We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them’. Or if we want to bring the phrase up-to-date, maybe we need to adopt the O2 saying in that we need to ‘stop thinking cat and be more dog’.

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Further reading

Higher Education Commission (2012) Postgraduate Education - An Independent Inquiry by the Higher Education Commission, London :HEC.

Morgan, M (2011) Improving the Student Experience- a Practical Guide for Universities and Colleges, Oxon: Routledge.

Thomas, L. (2002) 'Student retention in higher education: The role of institutional habitus', Journal of Education Policy. 17(4), 423-442.

Tinto, V. (1988) 'Stages of student departure: reflection on the longitudinal character of student leaving', Journal of Higher Education. 59 (4), 438-55.

Stuart, M., Lido, C., Morgan, M., Solomon, L. and Akroyd, K. (2008) Widening Participation to Postgraduate Study: Decisions, Deterrents and Creating Success, York: Higher Education Academy.

Wakeling, P., (2005) 'La noblesse d’état anglasie? Social class and progression to postgraduate study', British Journal of Sociology of Education. 26 (4), 505-22.