Some thoughts on Masters degrees

A part of my role in academic planning, I read a lot of proposals for new postgraduate awards, and I also look how many and what kind of student enrol in masters level taught awards when I’m doing any analysis of our award portfolio and student population. With the current approach to student visas likely to have an impact on international recruitment from some countries, and the cost of HE in the UK, it’s timely to consider how to develop an appropriate postgraduate offering.

This got me thinking, particularly in the light of a couple of articles in the press in the last week about M-level study.

The Times Higher reports on a recent forum where Mick Fuller, chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education and head of Plymouth University’s graduate school,said “institutions were now less able to cross subsidise master’s provision because of the squeeze on undergraduate numbers.” With the new fees regime set to leave graduates with loan debt of tens of thousands of pounds, many in the sector question whether students will burden themselves with more debt by moving into postgraduate study.

Bob Burgess of Leicester University added “the supply in taught master’s programmes had already become “dangerously low.We need to think about new ways to attract postgraduate students into higher education.”

The article cites the rise in Masters courses taught in English in other European countries, and that these could become more attractive to both U< and overseas students.

In another THE article, it states “Research councils may eventually have to “rethink” the requirement for PhD candidates to have a master’s degree if the number of studentships available for such lower-level courses continues to be cut.”

With these factors in mind, here’s a few thoughts and questions about taught masters awards

  • Why would a university run an award for which they might charge about £5000 for a UK student for 180 credits, when you could earn £9000 for teaching an undergraduate student for 120 credits?
  • How can we develop  targets that recognise that some activities – and postgraduate teaching is one of them – need to be considered in terms that are not just financial?
  • Why would a student choose a taught postgraduate masters over an integrated masters? The former would cost leas, and cover more learning, the latter, although more expensive could be completed in less time and be covered by a student loan?
  • In developing and reshaping a postgraduate portfolio, should awards be designed to directly follow on from awards in an existing undergraduate portfolio, or should they be more open and negotiated with a greater amount of research expected?
  • What should we measure in a postgraduate portfolio performance tool? Are the factors that we would use for undergraduate relevant, or do other things come into play?

I don;t have answers to these questions yet – just a set of opinions!- but these are some of the things I’ll be considering as I start work on assessing the postgraduate portfolio, and on mapping progression routes from our existing undergraduate awards.







6 thoughts on “Some thoughts on Masters degrees

  1. Hi Mike

    I agree the days of subsidising taught Masters courses with a handful of student are over, we have a lot of PG courses in this University that are populated by non-fee paying staff (such as me!). You are right when you suggest that £9K for an UG is more attractive. However, this is not just about money (I know this is me saying this!!).

    We are a unique business. What other sector would spend so much time and money recruiting the best and most suitable people, train them for three years and then let them go off elsewhere?

    Specialist PG provision is key to provide:

    Non traditional income
    Research opportunities for staff (and therefore attract and keep good academics)
    Allow the building of specialist research subject areas or Super Groups
    A valuable human resource for (low level) learning & teaching, marketing and School liaison activities
    A valuable human resource to give capacity to the rapid response needs of enterprise activity
    A trial period for potential new PhD students
    Potential future academic staff, VL and PT teaching contracts
    A potential resource for local businesses adding to the local economy

    Therefore we have to (and we have) to think of ways of delivering PG differently . Similarly we have to have new ways (and we have proposed a way) of providing funding for this.

  2. Peter

    You know that I don’t disagree with anything you have said. My contention is that we have to understand WHY we are offering p/g, and know WHAT we are offering to make sure we have the right p/g offer.

    It’s not just abut money, but we need to make sure our KPIs and measures support this kind of actvity


  3. Mike
    I agree as usual! The approach you outline should be our approach to all we do.

    TQM anyone?


  4. Mike and Pete, We’ll you two seem to have both the questions AND the answers ( or maybe there opinions) If only it were that simple!!

    In relation to point one – it’s not a case necessarily of either /or but potentially both. It’s not necessarily the case that by dropping one cheaper course (pg) that you can replace it with a more costly (ug) one. They are not undertaken by the same student and the university may wish to attract a diverse student group. It’s also key to know the unit cost of eduction per student and in that way one can compare like with like and understand the cost effectiveness of each award whether that be at ug or pg. It’s no use having a 9000 fee if the expenditure associated with that is 9000, better to have a 5000 fee where the cost is 4000.

    In relation to point two – we all agree that targets need to be quantifiable, that doesn’t mean financial. But we have to have a shared understanding of them and we have to recognise that there is a difference between understanding the price of something and the value of something. These are of course not mutually exclusive.

    In relation to point three- integrated undergraduate/masters programmes are something worthy of greater exploration and may be the future.

    In relation to point four – the gap between ug and pg is often referred to as the ‘ broken bridge’ and again what’s import is not so much how we do it, but that we do it, and that we have a variety of bridges for students to use.

    In relation to the final point – what should we measure and is it different to ug? Well we can measure what you like, so long as we don’t confuse having the numbers with making a judgment. The data is important but it’s not everything.

    Enough for now.


  5. We like to make it simple , and think we know everything! But you’ve made some great points and for me the most important thing is that our community of HoS/ADLTs is discussing this stuff.

  6. Agreed. Mike. I’m liking the ‘new’ look. Takes a like getting used navigation wise. Keep up the good work. Discussion is the key……..

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