Postgraduates – public good or job qualification?

An international study of postgraduate education has produced evidence of considerable challenges over a range of countries, from emerging economies to the most developed in North America and Europe.

Research by University of Oxford academics, commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, reviewed quality, access and employment outcomes in taught and research postgraduate education in Australia, England, Germany, India, Norway, Scotland, Spain and the United States.

They found a broadly similar picture in all eight, but with different responses tailored to individual educational cultures and socio-economic conditions.

“A clear question that emerges from the study is: how many PhDs and masters graduates does a country ‘need’ and who should pay for postgraduate education?” say Gillian Clarke and Ingrid Lunt, authors of the report International Comparisons in Postgraduate Education: Quality, access and employment outcomes.

“In almost all countries, debate about the beneficiaries of postgraduate education has led to a significant shift in the balance of funding from the state to the individual. However, the recent and pervasive focus on employability has to be balanced with commitment to the wider benefits of postgraduate education at all levels.”

In addition to a shift from élite to mass systems and perceived tensions between maintaining quality and increasing access to postgraduate education for all students who are capable of undertaking it, they found an increase in competition between institutions globally for postgraduate students.

A question of need

“The question of how many doctoral graduates are needed is a challenge for all countries,” Clarke and Lunt say. “The challenge includes both how to fund doctoral programmes and their contribution to the economy and society.”

They cite warnings that in some countries ‘supply has outstripped demand’ and suggestions that time and effort invested in gaining a PhD may not be worthwhile in all cases.

While the primary aim of doctoral studies – outside a limited number of careers where a higher degree is a requirement – is to produce the next generation of academics, the research shows a growing preoccupation with injecting higher qualified workers into the economy, with the view expressed that government and some employers see more as better.

“A challenge is to find a balance between producing the right number of doctoral graduates so that there are enough both to maintain a steady supply for academia and industry-based research and to enter other careers, benefitting society and contributing to a thriving economy.”

But the researchers heard evidence from several countries including Spain, Germany and the United States that there are potentially decreasing benefits from embarking on postgraduate education in some areas.

“One contributor suggested that, not just in England but Europe-wide, there are concerns about the over-supply of doctoral graduates even though most now emerge with a high level of professional skills.

“Apart from India, the countries in this study aim to maintain or reduce current numbers of doctoral graduates.”

Skills appreciated

In the United Kingdom, graduates with PhDs may be entering employment at levels lower than their qualification might suggest.

But the researchers refer to individuals with high-level skills such as those possessed by doctoral graduates ‘revolutionising’ their work environment, “even if their role appears to be at a lower level than might be expected for someone with their qualification”.

Leading companies are well aware of the value inherent in recruiting PhD graduates, especially but not solely in technical areas, the researchers write.

“Such employers are looking for personal qualities as well as technical and professional skills and may find one or more universities from which they have recruited doctoral graduates in the past with great success and return to recruit from the same institution.”

In the UK a growing number of doctoral candidates who do not intend to enter academia embark on a PhD with the intention of gaining an advantage in the employment market, and this does not necessarily detract from their enthusiasm for their research.

International comparisons

The researchers contrast Australia’s successful income-contingent loan system available to postgraduates with the uncertainty around postgraduate funding in England, and fears that accumulated debt will deter graduates from postgraduate study.

This is coupled with concern that either rich students will have the advantage, or universities will have to subsidise postgraduate programmes using undergraduate tuition fee income.

Clarke and Lunt add that England’s relatively high tuition fees may threaten its global competitiveness for postgraduates.

In Germany, they point to uncertainty around postgraduate funding and tensions over the introduction of tuition fees, and an increasing gap between ‘excellent’ universities and others, resulting in variable quality.

India’s strengths are its healthy economy, potential to increase participation in postgraduate education and continuing initiatives to widen access to higher and postgraduate education, targeted at under-represented groups with potential.

Challenges include the relatively poor quality of some institutions and the general divide between elite and other institutions, and the gap between rich and poor, urban and rural communities that restricts access to higher education.

While Norway’s strengths include a total absence of tuition fees and treatment of doctoral students as staff with employment contracts and rights, there is concern over grade inflation as a result of a new grading system for postgraduate degrees, resulting in a potential lack of consistency.

Scotland’s strength is that it isn’t England, the report suggests, with a distinctive approach to collaborative and interdisciplinary research through ‘research pools’. But they add to the complexity of doctoral training structures.

Spain’s strengths are threatened by funding challenges, both in the wider economy and in higher education, and an apparently conservative and still developing qualifications framework.

The United States’ global domination of postgraduate study is facing challenges from relatively high tuition fees and the lack of a national quality assurance organisation. The report says that devolution of responsibility for quality assurance to individual states could create inconsistencies and lead to variable academic standards in postgraduate education.

International Comparisons in Postgraduate Education makes clear the need for all countries to decide the extent to which the continued expansion of postgraduate education is sustainable, and to clearly identify and articulate the benefits of postgraduate qualifications at different levels.

This article was written by David Jobbins and was originally published on University World News. Home page photo by Joachim Schlosser/ Flickr Commons.


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