Saturday, 9 February 2013

Postgraduate education: time for a rethink

The Master said: "I never refuse to teach anyone, not even those so lowly they come offering nothing more but a few strips of dried meat."   
The Analects 7.7

It’s that time of year again when hopeful applicants are being interviewed for postgraduate places in the UK. The bar is set ever higher: gone are the days when a good first degree would guarantee you an interview. In my own department, the sad reality is that even for those with stellar CVs, the amount of funding is pitifully small. If you’re really smart and motivated and determined to get a doctorate, the only way forward may be self-funding. But here’s the problem: student loans will cover undergraduate but not postgraduate study. If you’re on a full-time course, it can be hard to find a job that would begin to cover your costs. So the only option may be to find friends or relatives willing to give or loan you the money. For a doctorate in Experimental Psychology at Oxford (UK and EU students), this comes to £6,659 per annum in fees, plus you have to demonstrate you have £12,900 per annum for living costs. And for overseas students, the fees are nearly three times as much.
At undergraduate level, huge efforts have been made to widen access and to ensure that family background is no barrier to studying at Oxford. Indeed, there have even been complaints that there is a bias against public school applicants. But at postgraduate level, everything is different.
This point has been forcefully brought to the attention of academics here in Oxford because of a legal challenge that was issued last month October by a potential graduate student, Damien Shannon. Mr Shannon had been accepted for an MSc in economic and social history. He obtained a bank loan to cover fees, but was not allowed to take up his place because he could not demonstrate that he had £21,082 to cover living costs. Although Mr Shannon is suing St Hugh’s College, the monetary undertaking is part of the University’s requirements and not specific to any one college. He is challenging this requirement, on the grounds that the financial demands are unreasonable and discriminate against poorer students. Shannon argues that it is perfectly possible to live in Oxford on less than £12K per annum; he objects to the fact that the cost of living level has been set on the assumption that students at Oxford will indulge in a lifestyle that involves “socialising and dining in college”.
I disagree with Shannon’s specific argument, but I’m glad he’s forced this issue into the open. He’s creating a diversion from the real issues by implying that Oxford only wants postgraduates who can sustain some kind of Brideshead Revisited lifestyle. This is just plain daft. If you are going to supervise someone, at Oxford or anywhere else, what you are looking for are the qualities specified by Chris Chambers: “Intelligence, discipline, creativity, rationalism, stubbornness – and sheer nerdiness”. Note that poshness, affluence and a taste for claret don’t feature in the list. Most of us prefer students who can stand on their own two feet without depending on donations from rich parents. But what we definitely don’t want are students whose studies are disrupted by malnutrition, financial stress and the tiredness that comes from trying to do postgraduate work while holding down a job. It’s taxing enough doing postgraduate studies without being in penury, and I reckon that the University’s cost-of-living estimate  is both reasonable in scale and motivated by a consideration for student welfare, not by a desire to exclude the poor.
Nevertheless, under the current system, it’s undeniable that the poor are excluded, and, with students now amassing large debts during undergraduate courses this trend is exacerbated. This can only be bad for social mobility. Employers are increasingly demanding qualifications beyond a first degree: you may not even get shortlisted for a job unless you have at least a Master’s level qualification. On the basis of analysis of longitudinal data from the National Child Development Study and the British Cohort Study, Lindley and Machin (2012) concluded: "It is very clear that the individuals who have done better in terms of wages are those who have acquired higher education qualifications. In turn, the acquisition of higher qualifications has become more skewed towards people from wealthier backgrounds."
So what’s the solution? Perhaps we need to rethink how we structure our educational system. The current model imposes a chasm between studying and employment. The University of Oxford does not offer part-time degrees*(see below!), and discourages students from taking on any but minimal paid work. Contrast this with Birkbeck College London, where my mother studied for both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in the 1960s, while working as a secretary. (She was a mature student, and mealtimes in our household were greatly enlivened by regular “Educating Rita” moments, as when she was first introduced to Kafka :“I just don’t get it. There’s this man who’s turned into a cockroach. I mean, it’s just completely stupid!”).
I don’t see Oxford introducing part-time courses or evening study any time soon. Apart from creating administrative complications, especially in the context of the college system, it would go against an ethos that values the idea of intense scholarship, with the student free from worldly distractions. I’ve always thought that here in the UK our postgraduates have a huge advantage because they can immerse themselves entirely in research, allowing them to complete a doctorate some two to three years ahead of their North American contemporaries. I’d be sorry to see the option for full-time scholarship disappear: there is something special that occurs when a person is entirely free to focus just on academic study, to the exclusion of everything else. But I do think we need other options, especially in view of the growing financial pressures on students.
The introduction of more flexible degrees could make a big difference to students like Damien Shannon, because they would make it feasible to fund oneself through a degree. I can see benefits, too, for those who want to combine an academic degree with child-rearing. We have for many years had models in the UK for institutions offering part-time degrees, evening courses, sandwich courses and distance learning, yet these are regarded as outside the mainstream. My suggestion is that our top universities need to think seriously about offering such alternative modes of study alongside traditional degree courses if we really want to make postgraduate education accessible to all of those who are able to benefit from it.
Reference Lindley, J., & Machin, S. (2012). The Quest for More and More Education: Implications for Social Mobility* Fiscal Studies, 33 (2), 265-286 DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5890.2012.00161.x

*This is what I love about blogging - within minutes of posting this blog, I've been corrected by Tristram - see first comment - Oxford DOES offer some part-time postgrad degrees already! 

PS 28/3/2013
The dispute between Damien Shannon and Oxford University has been resolved. Oxford University is to review its procedures regarding financial guarantees. Mr Shannon has been offered a postgraduate place from October 2013. I'll be following the review process with great interest.