Modern Postgraduate Education: Catering to Students’ Needs

Professor Lutz-Christian Wolff, Dean of the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Graduate School reflects on the development and modernisation of postgraduate education and what does it bode for students.
Professor Lutz-Christian Wolff
Dean of the Graduate School & Wei Lun Professor of Law
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Professor Lutz-Christian Wolff specialises in International and Chinese Business Law, Comparative Law, and Private International Law. He has studied, worked and conducted research in a number of jurisdictions, including mainland China, Taiwan, and the USA. He is admitted to practise in England and Wales and in Germany. He is frequently invited to work with multinational companies on investment projects in the Greater China region. He was a founding member of the Faculty of Law (School of Law) and has been appointed as Dean of the CUHK Graduate School as of 1 September 2014.

The environment of postgraduate education is changing

The globalisation of the world’s markets requires universities to consider new curriculum designs, to internationalise their student bodies and teaching staff as well as to address related multi-cultural implications. Furthermore, recent years see the so-called e-generation advancing to the postgraduate level and thus, forcing universities to adopt e-learning strategies to address the expectations and needs of modern postgraduate students. Most importantly, tightening job markets are compelling students to make career-oriented study choices and universities have to respond accordingly. 

Addressing these and other pressing issues in rapidly evolving local, regional and international educational markets requires universities to consider new approaches. From the viewpoint of postgraduate education, it must be asked if the focus should be shifted to much more practice-oriented teaching and learning strategies. 

Is professional training of postgraduate students becoming more important than intellectual education?

The goals of postgraduate education should first of all be in line with the viewpoints of potential or actual postgraduate students. What are their aims? Why do they register for postgraduate programmes? For the vast majority of postgraduate students, the answer is straightforward. 

Postgraduate students are not too interested in intellectual acrobatics. They have rather down-to-earth aims in that they expect postgraduate programmes to enhance their career prospects. This is a very understandable motivation in times of increasingly competitive local and international job markets. As a result, universities need to acknowledge that job-orientated professional training should be an important element of any modern postgraduate course of study.  

But, does this mean that postgraduate education has to do away with theories? Should intellectual challenges be replaced with practical exercises? Should attempts to sharpen postgraduates’ thinking skills be abolished for the sake of case studies or field work? The answer is again a straightforward one: of course not! Practical knowledge and skills must be based on solid theoretical foundations. Furthermore, only sharp-minded, creative and critical thinkers will be able to apply practical knowledge and practical skills successfully. 

How should modern postgraduate education look like? 

Modern postgraduate programmes and courses have to combine theoretical education and practical training in order to cater to the modern postgraduate students’ needs. This, however, leads to challenges. 

First, providers of postgraduate education may have to redesign curricula as well as teaching methods with the goal to combine theory and practice. This may require the investment of money and manpower. Second, it is important that postgraduate students are aware of the importance of theoretical knowledge and skills to be able to appreciate and thus, take full advantage of any practical training offered at postgraduate level. Often, communication is key for the successful implementation of postgraduate teaching and learning strategies which combine theoretical education with practical training. 

Third, it is important to understand that special needs may differ significantly amongst disciplines. This is rather obvious when considering the very different postgraduate study options in the fields of humanities on the one hand and science and engineering on the other. In other words, it may not be possible to develop a ‘one form fits all’ strategy for all postgraduate programmes. 

One general principle, however, applies across the board. Modern postgraduate education must be tailored to students’ needs. Therefore, the transfer of substantive theoretical knowledge and the sharpening of the intellectual skills of postgraduate students have to go hand in hand with practice-oriented training so as to prepare students for their future careers.