The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

2. Demand-led provision: discovering what students want

2.1 Resisting the temptation to ‘teach what we know’

Although as economists we spend a sizeable amount of our time considering markets of one form or another, the potential irony is that when it comes to the development of ab initio PGT the notion of being market receptive, if not actually market driven, is something that frequently escapes us. Whilst many would wish to refute the idea of pandering to the market, consumer sovereignty is nevertheless a powerful concept that now intrudes upon the UK higher education sector, albeit imposed by external actors. However, the argument here is that to create a successful PGT programme it is essential to consider demand-led provision in terms of broad subject area rather than sink into the often complacent situation of ‘teaching what we know’. The idea, however, is not to disregard the inherent academic expertise of the department since that would clearly be folly, rather it is a call to embrace such expertise in a positive direction through channelling it into the successful creation of a PGT programme.

As witnessed over the past decades, the finances of the UK higher education sector have changed irrevocably and the marketisation of the sector is rapidly gaining pace. Whatever the merits or otherwise of these developments, the introduction of new PGT degrees is encapsulated within this framework. Thus the number of programmes has dramatically risen as universities have sought to break the yoke of government and funding councils. Additionally, the mantra of ‘neo-classical endogenous growth’ as espoused by a former Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister has transmitted itself to increasing numbers of university students across the globe who seek knowledge and qualifications beyond undergraduate level and in what is still (thankfully) regarded as a high-quality higher education sector.

Therefore entry into this market has become potentially more problematic given the numerous PGT programmes that currently exist. Consequently, for an ab initio Master’s degree to succeed it must fulfil the following criteria: (i) be delivered by a reputable university, (ii) cover a highly pertinent and contemporary subject matter, and (iii) be attractive to a large segment of high-quality potential students.

2.2 Discovering ‘what students want to study’

Market research represents the foundation of any business decision and the academic environment is no exception. It is a structured process that, if done correctly, offers insight into the market, the product and the relationship that the consumer has with it, which, however distasteful, is how potential students are increasingly considered. The package that a postgraduate degree offers represents the ‘product’ which then needs a market; this in turn needs to be known, understood and exploited to provide the optimal outcome for the company (i.e. university/department).

Consequently, designing a postgraduate degree requires, as in any other product development process, gathering information about the potential customers (i.e. students), and other available similar degrees (i.e. competitor institutions and degree programmes), together with market conditions (e.g. employers’ demand). The phrase ‘knowledge is power’ supports the fact that relevant information has to be gathered, analysed and used in making decisions while also making use of the experience and intuition of those making the decisions. Conducting market research and looking into all aspects mentioned above will minimise the risk of an unsuccessful programme. By providing the right product (degree) the university/department possesses the potential to benefit greatly through positive externalities (e.g. reputation, student intake, research opportunities, grants, etc).

Hence, when undertaking the design of a postgraduate degree from first principles you need to devise a well-structured plan that will tell the department what information is needed and where and how it will be collected. However, economists are acutely aware through the notion of search costs that gathering information can be an expensive and time-consuming task at the best of times. This is not to say that there are no risks associated with good market research, but such risks are likely to diminish as the quality of the research increases. Another aspect to remember is that the findings of market research are there only to facilitate decision-making and should not be used as the sole rationale when making a judgement.

There are two broad types of market research and ideally both should be incorporated. Primary market research, in terms of gathering the information directly (e.g. conducting interviews, focus groups and questionnaires) will complement and supplement information retrieved from indirect sources of secondary market research (e.g. existing statistics, data and articles). Such secondary research can be used to identify the competition and to establish the type and level of students that the degree will attract, while primary research can be used to measure the current effectiveness of the university/department and which aspects of the student experience could be improved on.

Furthermore, understanding the requirements and expectations that employers have from a postgraduate can help when designing individual modules (e.g. in terms of delivery methods and assessments type), together with the entire structure of the course (e.g. time scale, placements and internships). Indeed, labour market evidence indicates a steady shift in the structure of the workforce, with a fast growth in higher skill employment (i.e. professional and managerial positions) illustrating employers’ demand for highly qualified professionals, whereby education and associated qualifications is a key indicator of skills.

To understand expectations and unveil the factors that will bring satisfaction to students during their degree is a first step in offering the appropriate type of environment, material, support and guidance. For example, the timeliness and quality of feedback and the availability and suitability of student support services were some of the aspects that received less positive views in the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey conducted by the Higher Education Academy (HEA). As such, conducting well-structured market research will offer the information and criteria on which students base their decisions when choosing to follow, or not, a particular PGT programme as well as how they differentiate between similar programmes/institutions.

One of the most straightforward and cost-efficient ways of conducting market research is to make use of the existing undergraduate cohort within the department. This can be done through a variety of formats: casual discussions, tutor meetings and informal gatherings. This type of communication can provide valuable information about a student’s requirement, expectations and limitations when thinking about a postgraduate degree option. Whilst another route to reaching potential students is liaising with international recruiters and agencies, researching into the culture and different expectations/demands that international students might have when applying for a postgraduate degree.

Hence, the methodological approach proposed for examining students’ interests regarding the introduction of PGT programmes is the combination of the two principal types of research in the social sciences and humanities, namely quantitative and qualitative research. Quantitative research is based on a hypothesis, deduced from theory tested by way of observation and data collection. The findings, following analysis, would either confirm or reject the theory. Furthermore, although quantitative research may be mainly used for testing theory, it can also be used for exploring an area and for generating hypotheses and theory. The typical methods include questionnaires, structured interviewing, structured observation and secondary data.

In contrast, qualitative research differs not only in the use of language and style, but also in the generation of ideas for discovering meanings and involves both interpretation and a critical approach to the social world. However, this can be used for testing hypotheses and theories, using various methods, for example, semi-structured interviewing, unstructured interviewing and focus groups. Hence, each approach possesses strengths and weaknesses, so over-reliance on any one method is not appropriate. Consequently, it has been suggested a superior approach is combining quantitative and qualitative research to examine the same phenomena from as many methodological perspectives as possible, which implies a triangulation approach.

After considering the types of triangulation, the research objectives, research questions and research methodology theories, the combined quantitative and qualitative multi-method approach can be used through the analysis of secondary data from a survey and primary data from focus groups. From the theoretical perspective, each method or technique has its own unique strengths and weaknesses, whilst the results the researcher obtains will be affected by the data collection method governed by an inevitable relationship between the method and result. Therefore, it is best to undertake research using a variety of data collection strategies to cancel out the ‘method effect’.

From the practical perspective, the two-stage process of empirical analysis of questionnaire data and focus groups is feasible and justifiable. First, the empirical analysis of secondary data allows the collection of a large amount of data from a sizeable population in a highly economical way that is also standardised, thereby allowing comparison. Secondly, the use of focus groups permits the obtaining of deeper insights. In particular, this combined approach also establishes the use of one type of data collection method to check the consistency of data collected from another method to ensure accuracy and reliability. Therefore, the outlined triangulation approach is argued to be highly beneficial and will result in a rich data set which will permit a greater understanding and lead to greater confidence being placed in the findings and conclusions of the research.