Why invest in postgraduate education?

Postgraduate education matters because it drives growth and innovation and attracts high value business to the UK. It matters because we need postgraduate degrees to be taken by those who have the most talent. It matters because the knowledge economy will wither on the vine if we can’t supply it with enough qualified highly-skilled workers. Investment in postgraduate education is essential if the political rhetoric about competing in a global race is to become reality.

The UK has a world-class research base. It delivers 8% of world research output, is second only to the US in a number of research disciplines and first amongst the G8 countries for productivity. Cutting-edge research conducted by postgraduates in our world-leading research centres contributes significantly to this capability.

UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) estimates that it was able to attract more than 200 research and development investments to the UK in 2008-09 and many businesses cite the strength of the research base as a key factor in locating in the UK.

Postgraduates have always been subject to higher fees than undergraduates, and have to pay for their tuition upfront. Access to postgraduate education is unequal and the economic situation is compounding these inequalities. The diminishing amount of financial support available in bursaries and from research councils (now totally absent from taught Master’s degrees), coupled with the impact of higher undergraduate fees means that postgraduate education is at crisis point.

A research paper by the Higher Education Academy found that:

  • women have lower rates of progression to postgraduate degrees than men across all subjects, despite the improvements made in education attainment and university access. The rate of progression to research degrees was even more unequal with men’s progression rate twice that of women.
  • graduates from the lower socio economic backgrounds are underrepresented at postgraduate level. Graduates from managerial/professional backgrounds (NS-SEC Classes 1 & 2) outnumber those from semi/routine occupations (NS-SEC classes 6 & 7) by seven to two. The equivalent statistic for research degrees is five to one.
  • there are clear differences in progression to postgraduate study by ethnic group. The mean rate of progression to postgraduate degrees for UK-domiciled students is 9%. Groups with a much lower than mean progression rate include black or black British Caribbean (5.2%) and Asian or Asian British Bangladeshi (7.3%).

We simply must do more to identify and overcome barriers to access to open up postgraduate opportunities to all. As the report points out, sectors employing doctoral graduates, “face a regrettable lack of diversity in their workforce”.

For talented people to reach their potential, in order to raise aspirations and widen participation, and for postgraduate research to drive growth, innovation and productivity it is imperative we invest in postgraduate education to make it more accessible for all those qualified to undertake it.

Gila Tabrizi
Policy officer
University and College Union

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