Postgraduate studies, a higher calling?

One of the curiosities of my university education was that I completed my first postgraduate degree before I completed any undergraduate one. If I were to write about that in any detail, it would be too mind-numbingly boring, so just a very brief explanation: my undergraduate degree in Trinity College Dublin was a BA in Law. In those days TCD allowed law students to do, concurrently, the LLB (Bachelor of Law), which was technically a postgraduate degree (it’s all different now, by the way).  In fact the LLB course used all the same subjects (today we would say modules) as the BA, so there only real manifestation of doing two degree programmes was two sets of examinations. And that year, the LLB exams took place a few weeks before the BA exams. I told you this was boring.

So I graduated with two degrees at the same time, and stuck them both behind my name with hardly a hint of shame at this maybe rather doubtful practice. A couple of years later I had my PhD, so it didn’t matter much any more.

The LLB of that day was a most confusing thing. It had an undergraduate title but was, at least technically, a postgraduate degree; in that it aped its namesake in Cambridge, or the BCL in Oxford. Its syllabus – well, I’m not sure you could say it had a syllabus, as the BA lectures doubled up for the LLB – was hardly a postgraduate one. And the whole thing was corrected a few years later when the LLB became the primary undergraduate law degree of TCD.

If I had wanted to study law in the United States, it would have been rather different: I would have had to study for an unrelated undergraduate degree first, and then pursued my law studies at a postgraduate level, generally leading to the Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree, which while labelled a doctoral degree is overwhelmingly not considered to be one.

And if I had studied any subject at all in Germany, it would have been hard to say whether what I was doing was undergraduate or postgraduate or some sort of seamless transition between the two.

Perhaps encouraged by the Bologna process, we have begun to look more systematically at this. It is not that we need to be pedantic or bureaucratic about it all, rather we need to have a clear sense of what we are doing pedagogically. We need to understand what standards and methodologies separate the different levels of degree programmes. We may also need to consider the significance (if any) of the different lengths of degree programmes culminating in the same award – some universities in Britain and Ireland have three-year undergraduate degree programmes, and some (including Scottish universities) have four-year ones.

As the framework for postgraduate courses becomes clearer, so they also appear to be gaining in popularity. Numbers taking postgraduate courses have increased very substantially over the past decade or two, and there is now evidence that those graduating with a postgraduate degree find jobs more quickly and more easily. But, apart from research degrees (including PhDs), what are postgraduate courses for? Are they a seamless extension of undergraduate programmes (as they clearly are in some subjects, for example engineering)? Is their purpose to address their subject-matter in a deeper way? Do they represent (as in the United States) a more advanced but also more vocational approach to learning? Are they the new gold standard of employability?

An increasing proportion of university students nowadays are postgraduates. That proportion is almost certain to rise. It is perhaps time to reflect on what the implications are for higher education.

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3 Comments on “Postgraduate studies, a higher calling?”

  1. Al Says:

    One issue that struck me about Masters education was the constraint placed on it by the level or standard of learning outcomes.

    If for example a person undertook a masters and wanted a language element to it, then the language element would have to be at level 9 also, and the learning outcomes indicated would be beyond mere learning of the language.

    In a country that trades internationally this is short sighted!

  2. Anna Notaro Says:

    When I embarked upon my postgraduate study in the UK in the early 90s – a Master in critical theory followed by a PhD in English Literature – my motivation was two-fold: love for my subject and to improve my chances to get an academic job..(or maybe three-fold, independence being another…
    Employability is not exactly a novel concern for postgraduate students, and yet I would agree with the proposition that a more ‘vocational approach to learning’ seems to be the predominant character these days, together with other factors:
    “Ever-increasing levels of personal debt, combined with an uncertain labour market, no doubt contribute to the perception among individual students that postgraduate study needs to enhance their employment prospects, and this may well be reflected in the specific form the expansion of postgraduate education has taken: the increase has almost all come in recruitment to taught courses as opposed to supervised research programmes”.
    This very insightful article concludes with the well rehearsed argument of ‘knowledge for its own sake’ being reduced to nothing more than an indulgence in the current HE landscape..
    Interestingly, yesterday’s piece in The Guardian advocated caution with regards to statistics suggesting that people with a master are more likely to find work

    I also think that the proportion of postgraduates is going to rise and the implications will be multifaceted in terms of funding, students’ experience and pedagogy, as for the latter aspect one might already envisage a wider use of digital technologies for learning for example…whatever the future holds what is paramount is that access to postgraduate studies won’t become a luxury for few but a well-thought through choice which combines passion for learning with employability considerations.

  3. Eduard du Courseau Says:

    Fortunately for me doing a master’s did make me more unemployable and I got my first graduate job chiefly on the basis of having an M.Sc. But I am happy to admit that this was pure credentialism and at the time my particular MSc was in vogue.

    But I did find it a lot easier than my four-year B.A. The cohort was smaller, less successful thus far in their careers and more specialised, the academic standards were generally lower and it was far less exam focused and placed a great virtue on research. This was easier than u/g study.

    Therefore I agree with Ferdo that we do need to examine whether it is appropriate to assign levels to each of the degrees and thus assume that Level 7 is more difficult than 6 etc. I would also suggest that one year is far too short for such courses to be taken seriously. Why not have a three or four year m-level course? And do we really need to do a dissertation?

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