There is no right to be a postgraduate

Turning postgrad studies into a 'human right' empties them of the testing and rigour that make them special.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams

Topics Politics

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It has become fashionable to attack the universities of Oxford and Cambridge for elitism. But the latest case, involving a would-be postgraduate student rejected for having too little money, raises broader issues about the purpose of postgraduate education.

Back in 2000, then UK chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown famously raised the case of Laura Spence, a state-school pupil rejected by Oxford for a place to read medicine. Last year, Elly Nowell made headlines by writing a letter to Oxford University detailing why she had rejected them. Damien Shannon is the most recently aggrieved rejected-student to go public with his story. Shannon had wanted to read for a master’s degree in history at Oxford University’s St Hugh’s College, but was turned down as he was unable to demonstrate he had ready access to both tuition fees and a year’s living expenses at a rate determined by the college, some £21,000 in total. Shannon decided to sue the university on the grounds that ‘selecting by wealth’ discriminated against students from more modest backgrounds. Shannon’s cause has received much public support and he has now received an apology from Oxford University.

Many commentators have been quick to celebrate this public humbling of an institution perceived to be elitist and arrogant. But beyond the rights and wrongs of Shannon’s individual case lie broader questions as to what postgraduate education represents nowadays. Is it the next intellectual step for committed and dedicated scholars, a way for rich kids to postpone entering adulthood for a few more years, or a necessity for finding work in today’s competitive labour market? Is postgraduate study today a privilege for those few who have proved themselves capable of academic excellence or an entitlement for all seeking job security and social mobility? Certainly there are many more postgraduate students today than in the past: in the last academic year there were 568,505 postgrads compared to only 85,365 in 1982/83. Of these students, just under half are registered as part-time students, and nine times as many are undertaking taught postgraduate programmes than are completing supervised research degrees.

Shannon’s case for discrimination hinges upon the fact that no other English university would expect potential master’s degree students to prove, in advance of embarking upon a year’s full-time study, that they had money to cover living expenses as well as the tuition fees. Indeed, the vast majority of universities are so keen to attract MA students they run expensive marketing campaigns, offer fee-waivers and scholarships, and allow for tuition fees to be paid in multiple instalments. Only students coming from outside the EU are ever routinely questioned about subsistence expenses – and that has far more to do with the edicts of the UK Border Agency than any academic considerations. In light of this, Oxford University’s stance begins to look increasingly anachronistic.

At Oxford University, there is clearly an assumption that students should be dedicated to scholarly pursuits above and beyond all other activities. One of Shannon’s complaints is that Oxford refused to ‘allow anticipated earnings to form part of the financial guarantee’. Oxford University argued in court that mixing work with study was ‘not appropriate due to the rigours of graduate study, and so projected earnings during a student’s course are not relevant’. This suggests that the intellectual commitment necessary for studying at this level is so consuming of time, energy and emotion that it is incompatible with employment.

Historically, we do not need to go back too far before we come to a time when nearly all institutions and students accepted reading for any degree to be so all-consuming that even if formal regulations didn’t forbid part-time employment, the weight of academic expectation made holding down a job almost impossible. Two things have changed: today, we have more students from more diverse social backgrounds; and there is no longer a belief that academic endeavour is the most important thing in a student’s life.

No one today argues that higher education should be the preserve of the wealthy, with admission based upon the parental bank balance rather than intellectual talent or a desire to learn. The fact that students with the appropriate entry qualifications are able to enter university irrespective of family income is surely to be welcomed. As the social-class background of students has become increasingly diverse, so has the need for more students to supplement their living expenses with part-time employment. Indeed, there is a long, and often unacknowledged, tradition of students ‘working their way through college’. Part-time employment tended to be done out of necessity, kept to a minimum, and to take place early in the morning or late at night so as to avoid clashes with lectures and seminars. The fact that such arrangements were not officially endorsed by institutions left no one in any doubt that academic pursuits were considered to be a student’s main priority.

Today, this has changed completely. Many universities advertise for students to work in their bars and shops, and proudly promote statistics showing the proportion that take up the offer. Students have no qualms about discussing with their tutors option choices that fit around their working commitments and particular timetable slots are avoided because so many students will be working. Lecturers openly discuss being reluctant to expect students to spend too much time preparing in advance of seminars because they accept they may be too busy working for money to commit to reading.

But lecturers and students cannot pretend that mixing work with study has no impact. A survey for Universities UK conducted in 2005 found that even an average amount of term time employment could significantly affect the chances of a student obtaining a good degree. The ‘average amount’ was taken to be 15 hours a week. A 2009 study quantified the impact of paid work upon students’ final degree results; perhaps unsurprisingly, it showed that the more hours worked, the greater the negative impact (1).

However, the impact of employment upon attainment tells only half the story. Government ministers promote university to schoolchildren as the means to future job security and higher lifetime earnings. Universities promote courses of study in terms of the employability skills they offer and the jobs they can lead to. But this emphasis on employability blurs the boundaries between job-training and academic study. If students enter university simply to get a job and lecturers seek to teach them transferable employment skills, then, for many, spending more time in employment and less time reading about their chosen subject becomes entirely rational.

The same applies at postgraduate level too. postgraduate study is increasingly promoted by both government ministers and individual universities in terms of skills rather than knowledge. The previous Labour government placed ‘a new stress on the doctorate as research training rather than as scholarship or original knowledge’ (2). Postgraduate tuition fees come to be seen by many students as simply an investment in their future employment prospects. As postgraduate study is increasingly linked to future life chances and social mobility, the denial of such opportunities comes to be viewed as an infringement of an individual’s human rights.

This can only be the case once the idea that a postgraduate qualification represents something qualitatively and intellectually different to an undergraduate degree has been eroded. At one time, postgraduate study was about a real commitment to advancing knowledge in a particular subject in a way that intellectually and academically few undergraduates were able to achieve. It was about working with lecturers in a different way: as potential intellectual equals rather than teacher and taught. In order to get to this academic level required real commitment and dedication. Today, all too often an MA or MSc course is just ‘more of the same’ with, on occasion, postgraduate and undergraduate students even sitting in the same lectures.

To argue that entry onto postgraduate courses is a right suggests an MA or an MSc is an entitlement in return for payment and meeting entry requirements. This separates the experience of being a postgraduate student from the experience of intellectual struggle. This comes about when it is accepted by a majority of those working in higher education that a postgraduate qualification is about increasing social mobility, teaching students a few more employability skills and giving them a certificate that will give them a slight competitive edge in a job interview. Oxford University’s questioning of the assumption that work and study are compatible bedfellows serves as a useful reminder that postgraduate study is about so very much more than jobs: academic effort, a delight in new knowledge, intellectual discovery, contributing to what we know about the world.

For some young people, postgraduate study is welcomed precisely because it offers another couple of years of working part-time in a coffee shop or bar and a prolonging of their student identity. The day they have to leave university and confront adulthood is postponed for a bit longer. A university offers a sheltered, protected environment that requires little from students in return. The intellectual demands are not sufficient to require a real commitment of time and effort, and similarly the part-time jobs many students take to fund themselves through extra studying are simply a continuation of the ‘Saturday jobs’ many of us had at the age of 16.

Ironically, if students are really concerned about their future employability, they would be far better off leaving university and gaining experience of a full-time job. And if they are really interested in advancing knowledge, they would be better off ditching the part time job.

Joanna Williams is author of Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought, published by Continuum. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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Topics Politics


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