Postgraduate Training in the Social Sciences: Knowledge, Engagement, Vocation

By Marginson, Simon | Journal of Australian Studies, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Postgraduate Training in the Social Sciences: Knowledge, Engagement, Vocation


Marginson, Simon, Journal of Australian Studies


The second half of the nineteenth century saw the emergence of universal primary education in the Australian colonies, though it largely excluded the Indigenous people marginalised by the settler-states. After federation in 1901 the construction of secondary education was slowed during the first world war and the depression of the 1930s. It was not until the 1950s, after another world war, that state systems of universal secondary education were consolidated and students began to complete school in large numbers. After that, the pace of educational development quickened, and the next two decades saw the rapid growth of undergraduate higher education. Student numbers tripled in the 1960s, and by 1975, 15% of 19 year olds were enrolled in higher education (Marginson, 1997, pp 1-45). This included a total of 16,965 students enrolled in higher degrees, most of whom were research students destined for academic posts, and 36,827 postgraduates altogether.

Enrolment growth slowed for a decade but from the late 1980s onwards, participation in higher education again increased rapidly, extending also up the age structure and taking in second and higher degrees. Domestic student load at doctoral level doubled between 1990 and 1994 (DETYA 2000) and vocational coursework enrolments followed, partly driven by the growth in fee-paying international students. By the end of the 1990s, one in four 19 year olds were enrolled in higher education, another 20% were expected to enter later, and there was a new mass sector: postgraduate education. The postgraduate student population had grown to one fifth of the student body in higher education and was equal in size to the whole student body, at all course levels, at the end of the 1960s.

In 2000, Australian universities enrolled 93,216 higher degree students, three fifths of whom were in coursework Masters programs. There were 142,423 postgraduate students in total, once graduate level Diploma and Certificate students were included. There were 28,632 doctoral students, including 663 in coursework doctorates, and 9,408 in research Masters (DETYA 2001). Just as the size of postgraduate training has expanded so has the purpose. Both the research and coursework programs prepare graduates for a broad range of occupations. The coursework strand is explicitly focused on professional work. The research strand provides implicit vocational preparation via mental training in imagination and reflection, analysis, disciplined inquiry and project organisation; and in the labour markets, research credentials signify advanced intellectual preparation. At the same time the research strand continues to provide advanced research training and knowledge generation in particular fields, and in some cases, is still the gateway to an academic career.

More than half of all postgraduates are enrolled in the social sciences. In terms of units of student load--net equivalent full-time students--in 2000 there were 51,249 social science postgraduates, 55.1% of all postgraduate load in Australian universities (93,053). There were 10,500 in research degrees in the social sciences, 35.3% of research degree student load (29,764). Of research students granted Australian Postgraduate Awards in 1995, 22.6% were pursuing social science projects. (1) In 1998, 19.5% of all university research expenditure was in the social sciences (DETYA 2001). Postgraduate training in the social sciences plays a major role in Australian university research, and an even larger role in advanced vocational preparation.

The social sciences

The social sciences include a broad sweep of academic disciplines and discipline clusters: all produce academic knowledges; many are concerned with professional training. They include Psychology and Counselling, Sociology, Anthropology, Linguistics, Demography, Geography, History, Political Science and Public Policy, Education, Law, Economics, Accounting, Management, Marketing and other Business Studies, Communications, Librarianship and Information Sciences, aspects of Public Health and Health Sciences, Social Work and Welfare.

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