My week - 3 February 2014 - postgraduate education

A regular update from Vice-Chancellor Sir Alan Langlands.

Sir Alan Langlands

The University’s recent successes in recruiting postgraduate taught students and attracting Research Council funding for a healthy number of doctoral training centres have eclipsed wider concerns about the future of postgraduate education, described by the Higher Education commission in 2012 as “the new frontier of widening participation”.

The Government has certainly been on the back foot on this issue in recent years, despite the importance of investment in postgraduate education as a pre-requisite for economic growth.  The Browne Review and the most recent White Paper on higher education both ducked this issue and have not served the sector well.

The evidence is clear – there has been a decline in UK postgraduate student numbers for several years; the effect of the sharp increase in undergraduate fees is still unknown but is likely to make matters worse; there is already evidence that many UK students have access to postgraduate education based on capacity to pay, not merit; and there are also inequalities in the uptake of PGT among women and some minority ethnic groups.

HEFCE, BIS and others have been busy collecting data that is beginning to cast light on this issue but the allocation of £25 million to experiment and the re-badging of funding from the national scholarship programme (NSP) are token gestures that just won’t cut it.  That said, Leeds is working on a HEFCE-funded project with the Universities of Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield, Warwick and York to share data and best practice, and to prepare the ground for future PGT funding bids.   The project focuses on: new approaches to PGT with a particular focus on progression routes and access to the professions; targeted information, advice and guidance and ‘widening participation’ interventions to encourage and facilitate entry to postgraduate study for under-represented groups; and new models of financial support.  Progress will be evaluated systematically.

Progression from undergraduate to postgraduate taught programmes, the development of integrated masters provision, and the importance of masters programmes as a stepping stone to successful PhD study are all essential features of the University’s approach to postgraduate education.  There is also no doubt that the development of the doctoral training centres and the transfer of HEFCE QR funding to support progress are combining to keep the ‘R’ in PGR.  New industrial partnerships, skills training in the use of sophisticated scientific equipment, and an emphasis on interdisciplinarity are boosting academic performance and opening up rewarding career paths outside academia.  The correlation between vibrant PhD and post-doctoral communities and research quality, impact and income is clear and the link between postgraduate education and economic growth is well-evidenced.

There are four challenges for Government and universities over the next two to three years: the need to balance fee income with an increased investment of public funding; the development of new financial products and loan arrangements to support postgraduate study for UK students; deeper engagement with employers in designing postgraduate programmes; and the pursuit of immigration policies that will encourage the brightest and best from around the world to study in the UK.

Political realities and public funding constraints mean that the Government is (at best) likely to mark time on these issues until the 2015 election.  Universities will therefore have to work hard in the meantime to ensure that politicians of all parties understand the importance of this issue to national wellbeing, economic growth and the international competitiveness of UK universities.  Here in Leeds, we will have to build on the success of our PGT programmes, make sure that we secure maximum advantage from the doctoral training centres, and face the harsh competitive reality that we will need to invest further in PGR if we are to boost the research success and reputation of the University.  The future of postgraduate education will be a central plank of our strategy review and an important area for action and investment going forward.

Sir Alan Langlands_signature
Send your comments to

Posted in: