Postgraduate Study – A right or an opportunity?

David Castillo Dominici

Universities try to avoid appearing in court. Generally, this is a costly experience that is likely to do them reputational damage, even when they win. As a result, lawyers are prone to regard them as a soft touch, preferring to settle even when they have a reasonable defence. This makes the current action in Manchester County Court unusual. A would-be postgraduate student is asking the court to rule that St Hugh’s College, Oxford breached his human rights by requiring him to show that he had sufficient funds to support himself for a year of full-time study before admitting him to the course.

Press reports are clear that the student does not have the funds available. His plan would be to work part-time and live more frugally than the university’s estimate of reasonable costs in a notoriously expensive city. There seems no dispute that the college is entitled to insist on proof that course fees can be paid, and the student has obtained a bank loan to cover these.

The judge is still considering the matter but it is hard not to have a degree of sympathy for both parties. St Hugh’s and Oxford generally, are to be congratulated for insisting that a full-time course is exactly that. With undergraduate courses, this pass has long since been sold and the results are clear in the hollowing-out of curricula. This should not be confused with dumbing-down – the point is that social science students are asked to read less, actually read less, and are more likely to rely on derivative works than on encounters with major writers in the original. There is a tacit conspiracy between institutions and students to structure courses in such a way as to permit part-time employment. Demands that students perceive to be inconsistent with this lead to lowered scores on the National Student Survey. Internal sanctions inevitably follow.

Many of us have experienced the pressures from students who have run out of money and are hoping to be bailed out by the university. Such experiences encourage support for the principle that students should not start a course unless they can show they can afford to complete it. Scholarship funds should be allocated on the basis of a considered choice between potential candidates. Hardship funds are for unforeseeable or exceptional circumstances. There is also an important issue of equity with international students. If the Borders Agency expects them to demonstrate access to sufficient funds to sustain themselves throughout their course, why should we adopt a lower standard for home students?

However, it is clearly hard on students who meet one part of the test – the academic – and cannot meet the second part. Even so, there are all sorts of things from which we are excluded by limited means. Every time I drive past Chatsworth, I might think, ‘oh, I would like to live there’, but this does not mean that I have an entitlement to do so. Is postgraduate education really so different? There might be an argument that barriers to entry deprive the country of the fullest use of its pool of human talent. This is not a trivial point, but it would direct attention to national government policy rather than a single institution. It opens a set of arguments about how far life chances should be left to birth or talents, and how far they should be centrally directed in pursuit of some version of equality that may not be universally acceptable and may come with hidden costs.

What this case reveals, though, is the way in which HEI performance indicators have shrunk opportunities for part-time postgraduate students. Drop-out does tend to be higher with these groups and the close attention to completion rates as a metric for home students has been a strong disincentive to maintaining these routes to a higher degree. These concerns block innovation in many ways.

I have, for a while been meaning to write about a conversation I had with an older friend, whose, academically-qualified, son was in a mid-career post in a human service profession and could not find a university in his region offering a part-time PhD track. These pathways were being withdrawn, despite their potential contribution to the development of workforce skills, because they were perceived to be too risky for the institution. In another case, I recently discussed strategy with a Dean from a university that is well-located to offer postgraduate courses targeted at a particular profession, whose members often become wealthy and look for interesting retirement projects. I recalled that, when I worked in Oxford in the 1980s, I met a number of retired doctors doing postgraduate degrees in the history of medicine, at their own pace, and making useful scholarly contributions. I suggested that this model might be transferable: the university could develop a modular MA, possibly with a premium fee, to be taken over a relatively indeterminate period. The dissertations would contribute to the history of this profession and generate joint papers with supervisors. It seemed, however, an unacceptable risk that students might take 5-6 years to complete an MA, in between golf, adventure travel and voluntary service.

The problems of postgraduate education underline the mess that has arisen from the attempt to combine state management of the UK higher education system with the pretence that it is operating a market. International postgraduate recruitment has offered easier and more profitable opportunities, at the expense of innovations in serving the home market. State intervention has obstructed innovation and enterprise, with few incentives for universities to diversify rather than to chase the same targets.

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Robert Dingwall

Robert Dingwall is a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

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