Postgraduate provision can sometimes feel like the Cinderella of HE, a policy afterthought, drowned out by discussions of the TEF and REF, and excluded from the NSS and LEO (Longitudinal Employment Outcomes). However, there are signs that this situation may be changing.
A Postgraduate TEF?
The newly-introduced TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) currently covers undergraduate teaching, although the initial TEF timetable released in 2016 suggested that assessment of postgraduate teaching would take place in its fourth year (see Chapter 2, point 13, of the White Paper Higher Education: Success as A Knowledge Economy). With some slippage in the initial pilots, however, there is now talk of this being further delayed.
The case for extending a form of external quality assurance to postgraduate teaching provision appears strong. Postgraduate numbers are on the rise in the context of the new state-backed loan system (see below), and represent a valuable income stream for universities (postgraduate fees remain an open market, and are uncapped; postgraduate numbers are also not capped by government). In this context, it would seem that there is a strong case for some sort of external assessment of the quality of the postgraduate experience.
It would seem, however, that there has been little public discussion of the specific needs of postgraduates and how these might be measured in the TEF. It may not be appropriate simply to extend the existing TEF metrics to the postgraduate field. The current TEF works by six core metrics – Teaching, Assessment and Feedback; Academic support; Non-continuation; Employment or further study; Highly-skilled employment or further study – of these, how many might straightforwardly be applied to postgraduates? How might postgraduate expectations of, for instance, teaching, assessment and feedback differ from those at undergraduate level, given that postgraduates are expected to be far more independent learners than undergraduates? What might a reasonable benchmark for ‘Academic Support’ consist of for postgraduates who are likely to be experienced consumers of the university experience? These and other questions remain open when it comes to assessing the quality of the teaching experience for postgraduates.
LEO and postgraduates
The recent release of longitudinal data relating to graduate outcomes (LEO) was a significant milestone for HE policy development, providing raw data from several different government departments (HMRC, Department for Education, and Department for Work and Pensions) about graduates of undergraduate degrees between 2008 and 2013. As the first large-scale dataset of its kind LEO provides us with much valuable information about post-university earnings. Caveats to this include the fact that the study is not a measure of the so-called ‘graduate premium’ (net financial benefit of going to university), since it does not analyse costs, the data is incomplete, and the data is also now at least five years old.
In addition, LEO data does not capture postgraduate degrees in any way. This means that LEO does not help active recruitment to postgraduate degrees since no raw data is available which might in time feed into studies of any ‘postgraduate premium’. Furthermore, LEO does not take into account the possibility that lower earnings reported by graduates in certain degree areas may have included those doing postgraduate study, and whose earning power was therefore limited during the period captured (although it may have increased thereafter as a result of the postgraduate degree). An unintended consequence of the release of this data may therefore that it places some limits on postgraduate recruitment by failing to distinguish postgraduates from non-postgraduates in the data concerning tax returns, earnings, and employment outcomes.
State-backed postgraduate loans
In 2014 the government addressed a significant decline in postgraduate enrolments by establishing a system of state-backed loans to cover part-time and full-time UK and (for the time being) EU postgraduates under the age of 30 who were enrolled on any taught and research masters programmes in English universities. Objections to the initial age limit (set at 30) led to the lifting of the age limit to 60 (see the government’s equality analysis paper). Repayments are concurrent with any undergraduate and master’s loans, kicking in at 6% when annual earnings reach £21,000 but with a cap of 15% of annual earnings for combined undergraduate, masters, and postgraduate loans. Interest is currently set at 6.1% (3% over the RPI – see the government webpages on postgraduate loans). In the Spring budget of 2017, the Chancellor announced that postgraduate loans would be extended to doctoral students (as well as to p-t undergraduates) as of Spring/ Summer 2018.
HESA data suggests that postgraduate numbers declined in two years of data available since years since 2013/2014, when there were 539,440 (2014/15 – 538,185; 2015/16 – 532,975). HEFCE’s latest announcement, however, suggests an upswing – see HEFCE’s release of 2 March 2017, ‘Postgraduate and Undergraduate Student Numbers at Record Highs’, which refers to disaggregated figures (increase of 22% of full-time postgraduate entrants; increase of 9% of part-time postgraduates). While it may be the case that it is too early to tell whether this is due to the loan system, and in particular the extension of the age limit up to 60, there is clearly a significant change afoot.
Postgraduate provision is only just beginning to get some of the scrutiny it deserves: now is the time for university managers to step forward to make their views known to the policymakers who will shape recruitment and outcomes for years to come.
 HESA reported a drop of 15% in 2010/11 and only modest increases in 2012 and 2013.