Posted tagged ‘postgraduate degrees’

Postgraduate studies, a higher calling?

April 14, 2014

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.


Being the Master

July 30, 2010

One of the side-effects of any significant increase in participation levels in higher education is that a degree no longer sets you apart from the general population. If the official Irish target of securing a 72 per cent participation rate of each age cohort is achieved, then having a degree will be nothing very special. It therefore follows that those with ambition will look more closely at extending their studies to take in a postgraduate degree, usually at Master’s level. And indeed that is what has happened, and over the past decade or so the number of those following this path has increased dramatically. Previously the main postgraduate activity tended to be in business schools, particularly in MBA programmes, but now it is common to have taught degree courses in almost any discipline.

For those who want to develop their portfolio of achievements with a Master’s degree, the jury is actually out as to whether it will necessarily help them very much; it will depend on the degree and the kind of career they want to develop. But a recent article in the Guardian newspaper suggests that some employers are now looking for postgraduate qualification for new recruits in certain jobs.

The question that we may increasingly be putting is whether postgraduate programmes are particularly appropriate for more vocational qualifications, in professions such as law, accountancy and so forth. In other words, we may start to look more closely at the American model of having quite general undergraduate degrees, and keeping profession-oriented programmes at the postgraduate level. It is s model that, on the whole, I would prefer, not least because we should probably stop asking young people to make career choices at the age of 17, when they are often very badly equipped to take such decisions.

Professional qualifications and postgraduate degrees

August 25, 2009

In a previous post I questioned our national attitude towards the professions (doctors, lawyers, accountants, and so forth), and asked whether we were training too many people for these careers, and whether we were getting our priorities wrong when we were valuing them (at university entry level) above the actual ‘productive’ professions of engineers, managers, scientists and so forth. As I have also mentioned, these latter careers can be pursued through university programmes that require much lower points than those needed to become, say, a lawyer.

Maybe we should look again at whether professional qualifications should be available at all through, or with the help of, undergraduate degrees. In other words, it may be that we should have law, accountancy, architecture and similar degree programmes only at postgraduate level, and that anyone wanting to pursue the relevant degrees would need to do an undergraduate degree first in a different discipline. This has been a topic of discussion in relation to medical education and training, but it may be right to look at the whole framework of training for the professions and to consider a change of this kind.

Moving professional training to postgraduate programmes would have a number of potential advantages: it would probably reduce the numbers somewhat (except in medicine); it would be pedagogically more desirable, as it would allow undergraduate education to focus more on general intellectual topics; it would avoid excessive interference by professional bodies in undergraduate university education; and so forth.

There are also arguments the other way, to do with cost principally. But it would be worth a more vigourous debate.