The Postgraduate Review

During a speech at Birkbeck University on the 27th of July Lord Mandelson announced a review of postgraduate provision in the UK, to be led by Professor Adrian Smith, Director General of Science and Research at BIS.

The review will, in part, build on earlier contributions to the HE Debate, in particular the issues identified by Nigel Thrift and Paul Wellings.

Postgrad student, image CC licensed from Tulane University

Principal areas of investigation

The review will cover both taught and by research postgraduate provision. Its principal areas of investigation will be:

  • to assess the competitiveness of UK institutions in the global market for postgraduate education
  • to assess the benefits of postgraduate study for all relevant stakeholders
  • to assess the evidence about the needs of business and other employers for postgraduates
  • and to examine levels of participation, in terms of who undertakes postgraduate study, and whether there are barriers affecting the diversity of participation and any associated reduction in the availability of high-quality entrants

See the full terms of reference

Emerging themes and key questions

The Postgraduate Review will focus on both taught and research aspects of the Postgraduate landscape in the UK, which has grown and matured in the last ten years. Based on initial submissions, research and contact with stakeholders, six areas have been identified where further evidence would be helpful. In each of these areas views are sought on whether any form of strategic intervention by government would seem appropriate.

External Advisors

During the course of the current review Professor Smith will be supported by a number of external advisers from the university and business worlds. They are:

  • Professor Keith Burnett, Vice Chancellor of the University of Sheffield
  • Dr David Docherty, Chief Executive of the Council for Industry and Higher Education
  • Professor Wendy Purcell, Vice Chancellor of the University of Plymouth
  • Dr Tim Bradshaw, Head of Science, Technology and Innovation, CBI
  • Professor Sarah Worthington, Pro Director for Research and External Relations, London School of Economics


Given the anticipated volume of input, we cannot always respond to contributions with a personal response but we thank all contributors for their input so far. Please state your affiliation in your comment.

About Adrian Smith

Adrian SmithA well-respected figure in the HE world, Professor Smith is a mathematician who has held a number of senior positions, most recently as Principal of Queen Mary, University of London, and who has previously provided valuable educational advice to Government, most notably in his 2004 review “Making Mathematics Count”.
» Read Adrian Smith’s full biography

Your input

The deadline for submissions to the review was 18 December 2009. Thank you for all of your comments and submissions, which will inform our findings and recommendations.

If you have any further questions about the review, please email


Comments here are public and do not represent BIS policy and are subject to our moderation guidelines.

View more comments: 1 2

  1. Carole-Anne Upton says:

    I would suggest the following as priorities for the review:

    1. Financial support for PG students.
    2. The relevance and adequacy of a PhD as a preparation for work as an academic today.
    3. Bologna implications, especially at Masters level.

  2. I run a very popular elearn pg course in Construction Law- it suits construction professionals very well – blended learning focused on practice allows a highly mobile and pressurised workforce to access the development of new skills – employment prospects are improved. The use of blended elearning should be examined to find out its effectiveness in delivering high quality learning for mature professionals and allowing access for those who cannot attend on campus courses.
    Also the newly introduced higher fee for entrants with equivalent qualifications is a deterrent to people who are out of work durng recession and seeking to upskill in order to maximise employment chances.
    Very few figures available on progression and retention of FT, PT and DL PG students on a national scale – so its difficult to find benchmarks to measure your performance by- this could be looked at

  3. Graham Mills says:

    I think it would be useful for the review to include Professional Doctorate provision in the UK, particuarly in the area of health and social care.

    Such post-graduate programmes make a valuable contribution to the careers of students, where attainment of such a qualification can lead to enhanced job prospects for example in the NHS where advanced practitioner and consultant grade job requre a professional doctorate or PhD.

    In addition may of the projects undertaken by professional doctorate students have a real impact on patient care and service delivery and are therefore of a significant benefit to the employers of such students.

  4. On Interdisciplinary PG research.

    May I draw your attention to the innovative Ph.D. programmes run by the joint SRC/SSRC Science and Society programme in the 1970s. It produced a lot of socially relevant research, be it on sociology of science, or as I did, Appropriate Technology for the Third World. The skills and knowledge I developed during my Ph.D. directly benefited the UK biofuels programme, and led to the establishment of a new industry in Kenya, manufacturing the Kenya Ceramic Jiko, an energy-efficient charcoal stove that reduced deforestation and reduced poverty in urban shantytowns.

    Unfortunately, this ability to fund interdisciplinary PG research has diminished as the research councils split up, as they have tried to concentrate Ph.D.s in a few large groups (rather than individuals around the world doing diverse interesting things), and as their reviewers routinely return idiotic assessments of interdisciplinary research. (I have some prime examples of that.)

    So one issue of key importance is how to develop and encourage interdisciplinary research, relevant outside the academy. How can we stop the research being so narrow it just amounts to mental masturbation? Do we need an Interdisciplinary Research Council, funding independent interdisciplinary PG researchers?

  5. David Pardey says:

    ILM (the Institute of Leadership & Management) welcomes the review and would like to ensure that it takes account of the considerable amount of postgraduate level provision available outside the HE sector, designed to lead to QCF Level 7/SCQF Level 11 qualifications from professional bodies like our own. In particular, given the existence of credit based systems across the UK, there needs to be greater awareness of the increasing opportunity for learners to transfer credit from such qualifications to HE PG qualifications. We would not want the review to overlook this small but growing phenomenon and possibly prejudice its development, as it opens up greater opportunities for PG study by those in employment, particularly. We would welcome the opportunity to present a fuller case to the Review at some stage.

  6. Anne England says:

    So often, it seems, that academics fail to see the importance of language skills, particularly the ability to communicate with a good degree of fluency in more than one language. We make liberal use of the word “International” in postgraduate awards, without ever contemplating the usefulness of including a variety of language options in the programme. It is time that we acknowledge that multilingualism facilitates more than international trade and competitiveness in the market place.

  7. cyberdoyle says:

    More postgrads needed to help telcos like BT. They don’t get IT. They need some bright young brains to explain why an obsolete copper network can’t deliver next generation internet access to the next generation of digitalbritains.
    Some work done in this area will pay dividends in future.

  8. There are so many issues with postgraduate education…but the most pressing must be:

    Fees/financial support – including how that relates to the widening participation agenda, especially now that undergraduates leave university with such a debt.

    Supervision and departmental support for PhD students (especially in the arts and humanities where there is no regular contact/lab work etc) – I know the QAA Code of Practice sets out how it should be, but I have met many postgrads for whom adherence to the CoP is a distant dream!

    Employability and the opportunities/restrictions of what a PhD can offer and what other opportunities there are for personal development (for example, teaching, conference attendance.)

    I could go on, but I won’t!

  9. Katharine Reeve says:

    We desperately need people who combine subject specialism/ knowledge with a *real* understanding of what new tech/ media can offer in terms of future innovation/quality.

    Especially useful in area of cultural industries where the UK punches above it weight – but this is often where the tech skills are lacking and there is a gulf between creatives and techies – this needs to be closed for us to really grab the advantage that new tech offers

  10. Without a doubt, the problems I have experienced are financial.

    Bursaries & scholarships are dying in the current economic climate, and therefore students who may very well be talented candidates never get the chance to take on postgraduate study.

    Tell me, unless I am bankrolled by a family member who magically has the required financial commitment, how do I possibly go about gaining a Masters or PhD? I don’t – because there is no government level provision for supporting students in these situations.

    Oh, and I find it equally abhorrent that foreign students are being favoured for funding in many cases to boost numbers, and provide an adequate level of scholarly spread that appeases the powers that be. This is an issue that has been confirmed to me by several teaching academics, and is (in my eyes) utterly reprehensible.

  11. Gillian says:

    1. Consider the effects of any changes on the value of previously earned Masters and PhD degrees to avoid job advertisement qualifications-creep and unintended ageism.
    2. Look at increasing the ease of interlacing education and employment in people’s lives so that those in non-academic jobs can continue to learn and research throughout their lives and get properly recognised for that.
    3. Look at the migration statistics for adults and then pay serious attention to how to encourage transfer of credit from one education system to another and one university to another across borders. This is not easy as there is massive disparity between nominally similar degrees (Bologna notwithstanding). An HCD-or-LCD decision will need to be made and the ensuing arguments held and won.
    4. Maintain a long-term, strategic perspective. We need a 30-50 year vision to build the more complex research bases. Equally, short-term views aimed at today’s employment market seriously risk damaging our responsiveness to new industries and socio-economic needs.

  12. Jon Klar says:

    I think it would be interesting to find out if getting a Ph.D is a financially sound investment of time. By this I mean how much money a person with a bachelors, graduate, and doctoral degree will make on average in different fields, compared to when they can start working. Obviously someone with a Ph.D will make more than someone with a bachelors degree in the same field, but if they don’t start working until 5 years later they are at a disadvantage. I guess the real question is how long will it take to catch up?

  13. Peter Smith says:

    I think it is important to consider the relevance of the doctorate to the current needs of society and to UK plc. Increasingly new models of doctoral study are being introduced; I am thinking in particular of the growing number of Universities offering Professional Doctorates. These programmes are designed to enable the candidate to apply research skills within their professional context and involve them undertaking projects which make a clear impact on the professions. It seems to me that we need to develop these models further, as they offer the potential to provide a work-based approach to raising the skills and knowledge base of our professionals. At the present time they is some debate as to the validity of these approaches; I think it is important that they are widely recognised, supported and promoted as a valid and important vehicle for docotoral study.

  14. brian birkhead says:

    I should like the Review to seriously consider targeting the degree-educated, retired & early-retired over 50’s with tailored, campus-based post-graduate programmes at university in as post-gradauate. The rationale is strong from all perspectives (government & the over-50’s)> Consider:
    . the imminent cut in government spending on higher education
    • the plans of Britain’s leading universities to cut the number
    of places available to British undergraduates in favour
    of “higher value” overseas students
    • the increasing evidence of ageism in society that consigns
    people over 50 to inaccurately labelled bins
    (“unemployable”, “past their best”, etc..)
    • the size of the segment of the UK population of people over 50
    o are of a high intellectual grade
    o have a desire to continue to be intellectually challenged
    o can afford to pay higher education fees
    o would seize an opportunity to re-enter campus-based university
    o could contribute to the body of knowledge through concentrated,
    supervised research
    o can bring to bear on the envelopes of knowledge &
    understanding, the combination of intellectual ability and a
    wealth of real-world experience
    o form a latent pool of untapped assets on the balance
    sheet of Britain Limited

  15. Joel Parker says:

    It would be interesting to see a comparison of new UK PhD’s to what other countries are turning out, especially with those from the US. My impression is that students in the UK get much less time in school (3 plus 3 years versus 4 plus 5 years) and thus are graduating with much less training and real research experience. I can not see why anyone would hire a new UK Post Doc over a US trained one.

  16. Suzan Meryem Rosita Kalayci says:

    Coming from both Turkey and Germany (double nationality) and having studied in the US (Yale University and Georgia State University), Syria (Damascus University), France (Sorbonne University), and in my home country Turkey (Bogazici University) – I have to say that the education system, on the level of post graduate work, is kost appealing to me. First, because of its emphasis towards independent research and second because of its close contact between student and supervisor. For me this comes close to a perfect sitatuation in which one can study and research. I am very glad that I can write my post graduate work here in the UK.

  17. I wrote an article about this in the THE for Oct 29th. The text is available at

  18. Wit Ackman says:


    It must address the anti-intellectualism manifest at all levels of Government policy.

    It must address the material conditions of departments, academics and students.

    It must address the prevailing lack of understanding and undervaluing, by all mainstream political parties, of Arts and Humanities research.

    It must address the massive underfunding of Arts and Humanities departments, individual academics, and postgraduate students.

    It must recognise the falseness of its current valuation criteria.

    It must address the current Government misunderstanding that PG funding is the responsibility of the individual, and not the responsibility of the Government.

    It must address the actual needs of the academic community, and of its researchers – particularly the financial needs.

    It must address the fact that the system does not work; that it is critically underfunded; that research is suffering; that individuals undertaking research are suffering material hardship; that this is the result of existing government policy; that the Labour government continues at every step to let the academic community down, and that the other two mainstream political parties offer no positive solutions – only further threats.

    It must also analyse why, inevitably, after this review has been completed, the Government will continue to fail to meet these needs; why any policy changes resulting from this review will be either inadequate, or represent further threats to the academic community.

  19. Helen Tattam says:

    Though postgraduate funding may still be considered a relative rarity (I am thinking specifically of the Arts), studentships are nevertheless much more common than they used to be; and many universities are able to fully support a number of Masters and PhD students – either through funds awarded by an external research council, or departmental funds. Thus postgraduate progression at Masters or doctoral level is much more possible. However, for those students who are genuinely interested in going into academia, things become more difficult once their PhD has been completed. Both academic positions and funded post-doctoral opportunities are scarce. It is difficult to remain academically active if there is no immediate possibility of employment, as one is forced to do something else in order to earn a bit of money to support oneself. This then makes if more difficult to retain academic employability, should opportunities later arise. Increasing PhD scholarships without increasing funded post-doctoral opportunities is not helpful. If the research community is increased, there have to be possibilities for continuation for those who are genuinely interested in academia. An academic career is what postgraduates are encouraged to be interested in at the moment (is this what we want to encourage them to be interested in?). But many postgraduates are then forced to renounce their ambitions in favour of a different domain of employment, simply to be able to sustain themselves and gain some form of independence in life. Postgraduates cannot be expected to put everything on hold indefinitely, after having already invested a huge amount of time beyond their Batchelors, pursuing a Masters and a PhD. Their dedication and the skills and competence they have developed deserve more respect than this. The review should therefore consider very carefully the motivations behind postgraduate opportunities offered. What are the reasons for encouraging people to do MAs and PhDs? If one of the main aims is to train academics for the future, how are these academics of the future actually going to be supported? What practical pathways are available?

  20. Brooke Storer says:

    UK universities have a lot to offer (as I know, having chosen to do my PhD here as opposed to the US, where I’m from) and many pride themselves on maintaining/promoting an international reputation, but there is a sore lack of financial assistance/support for international postgraduate research students. The one scheme for which I would have been qualified (ORS) was cut the year I began my PhD, so that I and others have the option of self-funding through massive loans (covering a tuition rate 3 times that of UK students) or not doing our work.

    As someone who’s research focuses on the UK and who’s always planned to try to stay and teach/research here, I’d have been very keen on a funding scheme which traded research funds for work commitment (as is a similar case for certain schemes in the US). Perhaps thinking outside the box for international funding options would do the UK, its economy and the academy very well.

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