Distinction and Diversity in Higher Education

Postgraduate Taught student experiences and employability: Speech to Westminster HE Forum


Thank you for inviting me to speak at this event, but also for organising the conference – postgraduate taught (PGT) can sometimes feel like the forgotten part of the HE sector. Even just thinking about the current discussions surrounding the Green Paper the issues facing PGT have rarely been mentioned.

Perhaps this is because of the complexity of the issues, with almost half studying part-time and two-thirds are over 25 when they start and so you can’t really put PGT students into a single box or develop a single policy response. PGT has been referred to as both a bridge to PGR and the escalator to higher skills, and whilst this dual purpose approach is clearly quite simplistic it can be helpful just to raise the challenge for this session that PGT students will have quite different expectations and differing skills needs – and so there won’t be a single silver bullet from a policy perspective.

I suppose the other reason why PGT has felt out-of-the spotlight is that, at a national level, as the number of funded PGT courses has significantly declined in recent years so the Government policy agenda hasn’t focused on it with quite the same intensity as other parts of the sector. But as Government gets more involved in funding PGT provision through the new loan scheme they will also become more interested in it and see it as a way of delivering their priorities.

When I think back to lobbying about a PGT loans scheme in my previous roles at both NUS and the 1994 Group, the two key arguments that seemed to resonate most with Ministers and civil servants. Firstly, the idea of the leaky pipeline and in particularly ensuring enough UK PGT students to maintain the future academic workforce, but almost as important was the argument about widening participation and whether certain professions would become more exclusive as PGT was perceived as becoming less affordable following changes to undergraduate loans. So as Government gets more involved in funding PGT they will have higher expectations about being able to influence the agenda around their priorities.

Secondly, I just wanted to highlight the differing expectations of employers. It became a cliché a couple of years ago to talk about Masters qualifications as the new norm for graduates looking for jobs in the economic downturn with employers using it a differentiator and a way of whittling down large numbers of applications. This partly reflects the reality that many employers don’t understand the added benefit of a student doing a Masters, often seeing that it’s a bit more of the same, at a higher level, and so a good thing, but this means that the sector needs to get better at articulating the specific benefits of PGT qualifications.

But even for those employers that do recognise the value of a Masters they often have different perspectives and so sometimes they employ Masters students for their specialist set of skills whereas for others its for in-depth knowledge of a particular subject. So we shouldn’t expect that employers will automatically understand the added value of a PGT qualification, or even assume they’re looking for the same thing if they do.

But that brings me on to my final point which is the extent to which universities are already collaborating with employers in course design and delivery at this level, and this will be key to shaping the expectations of employers.

I should have mentioned in at the start that GuildHE is one of the two representative bodies for HE and many of our members started as University Colleges and quite specialist institutions – such as in the fields of agriculture, teacher training, creative and performing arts and so they are more vocationally orientated as a starting point, and so as I visit our members I can see this engagement with employers as a golden thread through their activities – not least at the PGT level.

As I travel the country visiting members I see these links and they are both diverse and flourishing. From Ravensbourne with employers on all their curriculum committees to Falmouth with their Academy for Innovation and Research housing Masters students who’s research has been designed in collaboration with a local small business to answer a particular question and to give the student real-world experience. This is not particular to the institutions I work with, and I look forward to hearing from the other members of the panel about their experiences.

So in conclusion – as Govt gets more involved in PGT it will have increased expectations about what it does and how it meets Govt aims; secondly we must recognise the different expectations that employers have and thirdly we should be proud that the links between universities and employers are diverse and flourishing