Thursday, 15 May 2014

Masterful guidance

The four UK higher education funding bodies have been working together on guidance for PGT recruitment teams on information for prospective applicants. Published so far by HEFCE and HEFCW; no doubt coming to Scotland and Northern Ireland soon. PGT, by the way, is Post-Graduate Taught – Master’s degrees by any other name.

The guidance looks very sensible, and is grounded in comprehensive research into the views of current prospective taught postgraduate students. What surprised me is how very basic some of the guidance is. For example, “Prospective PGT students are often balancing a broad range of commitments so information regarding expected attendance and assessment periods, if any, will help them assess whether study is possible for them”. Although obvious, this is a really important point, and I know that it needs making.

It also, I think, makes us ask a question about the role of PGT programmes in universities. (The guidance, that is, not the specific point about teaching times).  And that is, what are PGT programmes for? To a student, they can be the natural extension of an undergraduate degree, either for interest or as a stepping stone to research study. Or they can be a means to learn specific skills and knowledge for career development – either immediately after a first degree or later into a career.

And universities of course cater for both types. Sometimes both at once. But there are definite splits, with some university departments or research groups seeing a Master’s programme as a long and self-financing (sometimes!) interview process for a PhD, or as a means of creating acolytes for the professor’s research topics. To my mind the published guidance is giving a clear steer away from this type of approach – coaxing universities into more uniform ways of presenting PGT programmes, and thereby normalising and regularising the market.

Is this just the funding councils seeking something to do, now that undergraduate programmes are far more obviously subject to market rigours? That sounds a trifle paranoid, I agree. But there is a worry that, come September 2015, debt-laden new graduates will seek employment rather than further study, and a UK student on a full-time PGT programme may become a rarity. And if the sector is to try to seek government funding to support PGT provision at that or a later point, it won’t hurt to have got our house in order.

So there’s a bigger picture to the guidance: if the sector does all it can to make PGT provision readily available, then there’s a stronger case to government for supporting an important part of the UK offer.


  1. Hi Hugh,

    Interesting points, particularly your comments about the published guidance steering away from the concept of Master's study as a springboard or preparation for a PhD. It drew me back to this, also published yesterday by UUK, looking again at PGT employability and employer engagement. Familiar messages and I'm sure another tool for universities to refer to when looking at how to present their PGT programmes, but firmly placing itself in the 'Master's for jobs' bracket.

  2. Thanks, Tom - for the post and the link. It's a very subtle thing that I think may be going on: not that universities should not offer masters-to-PhD programmes, but that by getting a regular market for more generic programmes these sort of programmes may be crowded out.