Most research into the higher education student experience focuses on undergraduate (UG) education.  Government policy initiatives on postgraduate education, and subsequent research, have recently focused on access and funding (see, for instance, the blog in June 2015, Funding Postgraduate Study in the UK: issues of widening participation and sustainability).  There is, on the whole, less attention given to issues about the postgraduate taught (PGT) student experience and on how this level of education specifically bears upon opportunities and life choices.  Attending to these issues leads us to the question, which this blog post explores: what is PGT for?

The Society for Research into Higher Education Postgraduate Issues Network, which Dr Martin Gough of the Educational Development Division co-convenes, again found itself at the centre of this debate through hosting a seminar event in 2016, entitled Postgraduate Taught Student Experience, Employability and Support (presenters’ slides are available hereDr Camille Kandiko-Howson of King’s College London, and who has recently spoken at the University of Liverpool on her work on student engagement, was co-organiser, in her role as the Convenor of the Society’s Student Experience Network.  This blog post also serves to report highlights of this event [i] pertinent to our question above.

PGT is placed precariously between UG and PGR levels.  So, for instance, higher education institutions variously position their PGT provision administratively alongside UG, as taught degree rather than as research degree programmes, or they make a distinction firmly between postgraduate and undergraduate.  This phenomenon does not bode well for promoting a robust raison d’être for PGT.  The day of presentations came together well into key themes, namely knowledge, identity and the problematic status of PGT, and, at least, certainly provided pointers towards articulating purposes for PGT.

Confidence, Competence, and Knowledge

Peter Fine, Director of the Sports Dentistry Programme at University College London Eastman Dental Institute, has been undertaking a longitudinal study of part-time Master’s students’ experiences of continuing professional development (CPD).  He adopted a methodological focus on the confidence and ‘self-efficacy’ (c.f. Bandura 1977) levels of his CPD programme students, who have started careers in the dental profession.

We all want our personal dentists to be confident in what they do!  But his presentation of his research raised the further question about just what this ‘confidence’ is.  Peter has been measuring it by means of questionnaire numerical scale responses from the students at the start and at further selected points in the course of his CPD programme (by when it tends to increase but not straightforwardly), as well as by focus group discussions and personal interviews.  This must tell us something important but relying upon self-reporting of feelings of confidence is prey to factors such as corrigible memory and variation in how those feelings are understood at the time anyway: so, for instance, when is a feeling of confidence just bravado, with the danger of recklessness?

The link to the right disciplinary knowledge is going to be key to pinning the phenomenon down more objectively and allowing confidence to be an independent measure.  If enhanced competence in students can be observed by the expert then, arguably, we shall have grounds for noticing more confidence in our dental practitioners, through their ease in their working and subsequent success, and the practitioners will be entitled to feel more confident as a result.  And the increase in practitioner confidence (and competence) will be reflected in more patient satisfaction.  We can certainly say that robust CPD for practitioners who have already begun their careers is a clear purpose for the PGT level. 

Knowledge, Skills for Employability, and Pedagogic Identity

The knowledge base of selected STEM Master’s programmes became a prominent feature of the enquiry which Andrea Abbas (Senior Lecturer in the Department of Education at the University of Bath) and Rachel Spacey (Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Vice Chancellor’s Office at the University of Lincoln) presented.

If undertaking a Master’s is a strategy for enhancing one’s employability to kick-start one’s career, the interesting tension emerges between, on the one hand, core subject technical knowledge and, on the other hand, maturity, confidence and the mixed bag of ‘soft skills’ which are often presented as the most informative possible, and at the same time a broad-based, account of what employability is.  The lecturers interviewed in their enquiry were tending to think of the latter as the priority for enhancing employability but the students on certain programmes were operating on the assumption that the higher and deeper disciplinary learning would be the main factor in career start and success.  Do the students have a clearer idea than their lecturers of the purpose of PGT study?

The students’ outlook is underpinned by Basil Bernstein’s framework of ‘pedagogic rights’ (Bernstein 2000).  Mastering the discipline (to some level) is what then facilitates the holding of ‘powerful knowledge’, in the sense of a robust knowledge base developed to such an extent that the holder can build further on it, going beyond technical competence which just mimics particular operations taught to the students.   The idea of ‘rights’ comes in because students are entitled to attain this level of expertise.  Along with this entitlement to the ‘powerful knowledge’ comes ‘pedagogic identity’: you are not just a student or graduate but also a representative of the discipline you have studied, and this is yet important for future life and career development where they build in any way upon that identity.

Employability, Environment and Qualification Level

Abbas and Spacey’s enquiry also forms part of the Postgraduate Experience Project, a programme of interconnected research projects funded by HEFCE (you can find the published project documents via the links on the PEP home page).  The research programme has been headed up by Michelle Morgan (recently at Kingston University, now Bournemouth, more details about her work on the Student Experience here.  Presenting with Inês Direito (University College London Institute of Education), she set about establishing a conceptual framework for employability which centres it away from just individual possession of assets (such as acquired disciplinary knowledge and soft skills).  It is, rather, a phenomenon emergent out of the individual agent, the course of study and the societal environment in which the graduate finds themselves – this, in turn, captures both employers’ differing expectations and how to evaluate realistically what we can expect from diverse universities in regions with varied hinterlands of employment possibilities.

So, part of that environment critical for success through PGT level study is labour market competition.  It is now widely recognised that many first degree graduates aim to improve their employability (in the narrow sense: i.e. chances of graduate level employment) by attaining the qualification level higher than the Bachelor’s which their contemporaries and employers may have deemed sufficient. This has become a purpose of PGT but the presenters questioned that this state of affairs is right.  In an increasingly competitive labour market, individuals are using Master’s courses primarily as a ‘golden ticket’ into a career but they do not always receive that hue of ticket for a range of reasons. These include employers not needing Masters’ level employees and, although PGT study may provide more ‘knowledge’, it doesn’t necessarily provide in addition the employability soft skills which employers do seek and which they claim is not sufficiently emergent from undergraduate qualification.

If the Bachelor’s was always designed as the ‘gold standard’ of graduate level employment then there is a strong case that it should still be so and not be pushed into secondary status.  The evidence suggests that employers seek work experience as a critical element in job applications.  Should more be done to incorporate work experience at Bachelor’s level?  If so, PGT level study should then return more usefully to being the qualification for more structured existing career driven continuing professional development.  The presenters, Morgan and Direito, argued that the creeping credential inflation of qualifications to gain employment rather than for the acquisition of employability skills for career advancement that has occurred in recent years is sustainable neither for the HE sector, nor the individual learner, nor the employer.

Taking this line of thinking back to the prospects for developing pedagogic identity at PGT level, however, if the discipline-based Bachelor’s can be the gold standard, perhaps it is due to the discipline’s powerful knowledge being formed sufficiently in students by the point of graduation.  If this is so then the PGT level does not augment this identity but does something else.  MSc courses often have a more ‘regional’ feel to them (e.g. MSc in Clinical Animal Behaviour) by contrast with the BSc level generally, which across the sector comprises more ‘singular’ disciplines (e.g. Biology), to use some more of Bernstein’s theoretical terminology.  The powerful knowledge of Biology is what sets the graduate up to range successfully across a diversity of follow-on subjects.  In these cases, to study at PGT level is more of a step into a career than preparation to start one.

Is the academic career such a case too?  One stance would be that, to continue to the higher echelons of the discipline, you need a stronger pedagogic identity than the Bachelor’s could offer, and the more scientifically technical subjects which are growing their knowledge bases quicker than others might need this.  However, even though the Second (Bologna) Cycle is a common feature in Continental European higher education, and in its own style even more so in the United States as the typical ‘graduate student’ journey, in the UK entry straight into research study has traditionally been the norm, and especially in the sciences.  In humanities and social sciences we have found the common phenomenon of funding yourself to get a Master’s then to position yourself more favourably in competition for funding awards for doctoral study.  And we can see that this mimics the behaviour of using PGT study for positioning oneself favourably in the labour market.

Without a systematic review, we might leave this issue with the observation that the answer is likely to depend on nuances about the subjects the individual studies at each level and so there will be some which do need that fourth FTE year in order to crystallize that pedagogic identity.  Arguably, the phenomenon of ‘integrated Master’s’, fundamentally UG programmes but of four years leading to M-level qualification, offer a paradigm of this.

Whole Person Identity Development

The shifting basis for developing pedagogic identity allows us to look at a different sort of identity formation as a key purpose of PGT study.  Hazel Messenger (Director of the London Metropolitan University MBA, presenting along with three of her students from different parts of the world, Anabel Mederos Corratgé, Laura Montonen and Pagna Ukthaun), invoked again the importance of confidence-building for those heading out into the world of commerce and non-commercial enterprise to start their careers in earnest, with emphasis upon leadership.  The sense of identity which Messenger prioritises concerns the development of the person in a broader sense than the pedagogic identity defined for us by Bernstein.  The stance she promotes is that education should, through devices such as play and simulation, be a space for students to make sense of phenomena.  The emphasis is away from the power and specifics of disciplines in this identity formation; and this is what we would expect more in one of the most ‘regional’ of fields, Business/Management Studies.

The questions would yet remain, however, whether success (in the educational sense) through a MBA still depends fundamentally upon prior success through studying more ‘singular’ disciplines, and whether the tension between pedagogic and ‘whole person’ identities is contradictory or productive.  Perhaps some work of Lu Mello in partnership with PhD students in the University of Liverpool’s School of Life Sciences offers an example of how the two identities can be developed together productively.  Their study has shown how teaching and mentoring can boost employability both within and outside academia while enhancing student learning in a postgraduate module.   An interpretation of the process at work here is that to be able to teach well in your discipline, even as a novice educator, requires that you have developed a strong pedagogic identity, and this role will strengthen that identity further.  The practice of teaching, in turn, also develops the individual in broader senses, instilling skills which are not peculiar to the discipline and which translate well into operating competently in other contexts.

I began this blog post by noting an apparent precarity in the status of the PGT level, which would seem to go against the following position:

“… rather than occupying an uncomfortable and ill-defined space between undergraduate and doctoral education, Master’s programmes provide a unique and exciting opportunity for students to develop independence of thought, breadth of understanding and depth of study, enabling them to be critically analytic and to work confidently with incomplete information and in unfamiliar settings and to utilise current scholarship relevant to their practice.” (Kneale & Brown 2015, p.251)

There was, of course, never going to be one simple answer to the question of what PGT is for!  If we follow the various contributions of the SRHE event presenters and other thinkers then we can endorse the position quoted above with qualification.  That is, arguably, no one programme is likely to satisfy all of the specific claims above but it should satisfy some of them, and so a robust raison d’être for PGT as an institution does indeed emerge.

Martin Gough

(with input from the SRHE event presenters)

References and Endnotes:

Bandura, Albert (1977). “Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change”, Psychological Review, 84(2), pp.191-215.

Bernstein, Basil (2000). Pedagogy, Symbolic Control, and Identity: Theory, Research, Critique (2nd Ed.). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Kneale, Pauline, & Brown, Sally (2015). “Afterword”, pp.248-251, in Kneale, Pauline (ed.).  Masters Level Teaching, Learning and Assessment: Issues in design and delivery. London: Palgrave.[ii]

Mello, L. V., Tregilgas, L., Cowley, G., Gupta, A., Makki, F., Jhutty, A., & Shanmugasundram, A. (n.d.).  “ ‘Students-as-partners’ scheme enhances postgraduate students’ employability while addressing gaps in bioinformatics education” (forthcoming in a journal; more info via Lu’s staff home page).

[i] The event followed on from an earlier seminar on employability and transfer of knowledge from education at postgraduate research (PGR) level, by considering this issue in relation to different types of PGT programme.  It also followed on from a yet earlier seminar on issues in PGT programmes, led by Professors Sally Brown and Pauline Kneale.  Pauline spoke then about PGT student engagement and she has very recently been the keynote speaker at our own Pedagogical Research Conference (12 January 2017).

[ii] The book’s contributions cover student and staff experiences, transition issues, curriculum, experiential learning and assessment.  University of Liverpool Educational Development makes its own contribution in the form of: Strivens, Janet, & Willis, Ian, “Cross-crediting a Master’s programme in the UK and Pakistan”, pp.232-237.