Learning from London?

I sometimes wonder if it is worth drawing lines and generating comparisons between two seemingly disparate processes that are at work at different scales, and in different countries, but why not – I’m jetlagged with some late night time to spare.

Fig1CGSFirst, the US Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) released a new report (Findings from the 2009 CGS International Graduate Admissions Survey, Phase III: Final Offers of Admissions and Enrollment), and associated press release, that flags the challenges the US has in attracting foreign students at the levels it once did. The full report (from which Figure 1 to the right is taken) is definitely worth reading. This segment of the final paragraph particularly caught my eye:

Despite the high quality of graduate education in the United States, we cannot continue to assume that our institutions are the number one destination of international graduate students. In the last three years, growth in the numbers of international graduate students coming to the United States has slowed, and now the numbers have flat lined, even though global student mobility has rapidly increased over the last decade. Given this new reality, policymakers and the graduate school community are faced with several key questions if the United States is to remain the destination of choice for international graduate students: Are there national policies that deter international students from coming to the United States for graduate school? How do we make U.S. graduate programs attractive to both domestic and international students? Within the constraints of the current economic situation, what can institutions do to more effectively attract international students to their graduate programs? And, what lessons can we learn from the successes of colleges and universities in other countries in attracting international students to their graduate programs?

Meanwhile, I was reading the Guardian‘s Tuesday education insert today, and one faculty vacancy advertisement also caught my eye: University College London (UCL) “wishes to appoint an International Relations Lecturer to contribute to research and teaching on the MSc in International Public Policy within the Department of Political Science/School of Public Policy“.  Given my interest in international/global public policy, I read through the advertisement to see what the new hire would have to teach, and came across an interesting number:

UCL is a multi-faculty college of the University of London with a population of over 17,000 students from more than 130 different countries. It is ranked by the Times Higher as one of the top five universities worldwide. Founded in 2005, the Department of Political Science has quickly established itself as a leading international centre for political research and came 6th in the UK in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) organised by the British Higher Education Funding Councils – 3rd in terms of the percentage of research deemed to be ‘world leading’ (20%) and ‘internationally excellent’ (45%). It is the only department in the UK centred on graduate teaching and research, and currently has almost 400 Masters students on its programmes.

Nearly 400 (and rising) Masters students from around the world, in a new graduate student only department.  Thus, across the Atlantic, albeit at two vastly different scales, we see flat-lining if not decline (in the US) versus rapid expansion (in UCL, London, UK).  Of course this is but one department’s experience, though I have seen broader signs that the UK has seen significant growth in graduate programmes, including at the Masters level.

LondonNow, if you really wanted to unpack the developmental dynamic further, you would have to explore issues like the context (London, a global city which is also situated within the European Higher Education Area), the national system (which incentivizes departments to create one year taught Masters programs), an emerging sense that higher education is an export industry in the UK, and so on.  But let’s also burrow down to the level of academic practice, as captured in this advertisement, and ask this question: how do faculty members in UK universities like UCL or Oxford or King’s College London balance the need to generate revenue via taught Masters programmes, with the imperative to conduct ever more innovative research (which ideally needs to generate ‘societal impact’ as well), all the while supporting increasingly large numbers of graduate students?

And where do they put them?! By my count this particular department has 16 faculty (17 with this hire), 13 teaching fellows (3 with PhD) and “almost 400” masters students. This equals 25 MA/MSc students per faculty member, or 21 per PhD holder.

I know the quality of higher education is high in the UK, and is likely excellent in this particular department, but are these numbers and proportions (students/faculty) typical at the UK level, manageable for faculty, and reflective of the attractiveness of one year Masters programs (which are not at all common in the US)?

Moreover, are learning outcomes of such programs on par across national boundaries (e.g., the UK versus the US or the Netherlands), and do PhD applicants (e.g., from the US to the UK, or from the UK to the US) come to their PhD programs from the MA/MSc with equitable levels of knowledge and capabilities, all things equal?

If so, then places like the UK (and UCL) are doing something right, and the US can perhaps learn from the UK experience.

If not, however, then it might be time to ask other questions about the nature and implications (especially with respect to quality) of the rapid growth of Masters degrees in London, and the UK more generally.

Can we learn from London, and if so what?

Kris Olds

2 thoughts on “Learning from London?

  1. Interesting post, Kris, though few in London would (as yet) situate the city’s universities “within the European Higher Education Area.” A big challenge there for the UK to draw on the strength of the developments within the European HE economy before the fears of American commentators are fully justified!

    There’s some evidence also that the one-year Masters in the UK is being viewed less favourably by employers/sponsors in Asia and the Middle East than the two-years Masters degree common in many European countries. 3+2 is the Bologna standard, as you know, and the UK could be left looking like it offers insubstantial degrees in the European context.

    The U.S. PhD remains the gold standard, but the length of time it takes to complete is something that needs addressing – and not only by the students who (speaking from personal experience) get caught up in the graduate school culture of making a career out of being in graduate school.

  2. Pingback: Is a UK funding crisis needed to spur on the ‘education as a global growth industry’ development agenda? « GlobalHigherEd

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