Post-graduate research: Funding, provisions and the highly-skilled job sector

Last month I attended the Westminster Higher Education Forum on Next Steps for Postgraduate Research. The event took place at Sixty One Whitehall, and was centred on funding, quality of provision and the high-skilled workforce.

We kicked off by discussing the state of postgraduate research (PGR) market, and were presented with trends in post-graduate applications for study by Alison Goddard (Editor of HE). She stated that growth in the sector will continue, and this year alone saw a 5.1% increase in those in full-time PGR (part-time is also up 7.1%). Overall, PGR has actually increased by 50% in the last decade. Things heated up when we got to funding – post-graduate fees are not centrally regulated like undergraduate fees, and masters programmes are charged depending on the perceived earnings of their graduates. From this September – a new funding structure is planned to give post-graduates a £10K non-means tested loan that can be used for fees OR maintenance. Further on in the pipeline there is talk to introduce a £25K loan for PhD fees, but it seems we are still a while away from this. Whilst this sounds promising, there also might be a tendency for the (currently) cheaper post-graduate degrees to raise their prices to match the funding that will be available!

The discussion then turned to supporting the transition to post-doctoral academic and industry roles, where we sought to list the benefits of PGR to the high skilled labour market in the UK, and whether or not current PGR provision provides sufficient highly skilled graduates for UK industry. In light of growing numbers of PGR students seeking post‐doctoral roles in industry instead of academia, we were keen to discuss what universities could do to improve the careers and employability support offered to PGR students. Concerns were also raised that the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework, outlined in the Government’s Higher Education Green Paper may reduce the availability of teaching opportunities for PGR students, and in so doing, will impact negatively upon student employability in the academic sector even further.

Clare Jones, Senior Careers Advisor for PGRs and STAFF at Nottingham University stressed that Universities NEED specialised PGR advisory services – and that there is support from the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services for this if need be. She went on to give examples of the challenges post-graduate researchers may have when approaching careers services, such as confidence, knowing their competencies and benchmarking against senior colleagues. She stressed that as post-graduates researchers we have acquired very important employability skills that we need to tap into and present when it comes to interview and applications, and in turn the reassurance that employers are ditching the mind set of “PhD? Overqualified” – which had been a problem in the past. This was echoed in a short presentation given by Prof Alison Hodge (Aston University), who asked us “what is a PhD anyway?”. Her answer was:

  • Independent project management
  • Innovative thinking and problem solving
  • Presenting
  • Writing
  • Publishing
  • Communicating with peers
  • Building, using and maintaining complex equipment
  • Responsibility for safety/hazards and project risk assessments
  • Interacting with sponsors
  • Managing relationships with industry / policy / business / other research groups
  • Making an impact

Prof Sir Peter Downes (Principle Vice-Chancellor, University of Dundee) closed the session with a key message: “The old days are gone – post-graduate researchers do not simply stay in academia. PGR should be a national priority for a knowledge-based economy. There is NO SUCH THING as too many PhD graduates, as they are the ones that will drive economic growth.”

Good news for us.