Published by Modest Proposals in March 2013, I considered proposals for improving postgraduate funding in the UK:

In October 2012, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) published an independent inquiry examining postgraduate education, fiercely concerned for the lack of consideration given to postgraduates by the policy-making debates that surrounded recent changes to fee structures in the sector. The report was concerned with drawing postgraduates from the shadows, bearing down on government to introduce an infrastructure which would provide ‘state-backed student loans…for segments of postgraduate provision where the financial markets have failed to provide competitive sources of finance.’ That post-Level 6 education is not part of the current income-contingent loan system highlights just how practically removed it is from the central framework of education in Britain.

HEC is not alone in calling for a postgraduate policy overhaul. Centre Forum has also called for an extended loan system at postgraduate level, again bemoaning policymakers’ inability to consider anything higher than a BA (Hons) and drawing attention to the higher numbers of students struggling to fund a year’s taught master’s to use in the workplace and not the academia for which most scholarships are offered. The National Union of Students has also supported the proposal but Universities Minister David Willetts has denounced the idea, maintaining that banking loans for developmental courses remain sufficient. HEC has argued that this is not the case, especially as bank loans come with heavy fiscal caveats which see students who take out the maximum £10,000 hit with nearly 10% interest.

Justification for such a proposal, based on the financial strains placed on postgraduates, naturally leans on the wider policy of widening access to education. It is now feared that students will be put off pursuing education because of the higher debt levels incurred during first degree but it has long been a concern that the current postgraduate system places a staunch obstruction to social mobility and equality. No matter how much work is done to encourage students from poorer to middle income families into university, if they are unable to stay on, an embedded dilemma persists.

Of course, in arguing that access to postgraduate education should be widened with the facilitation of a state-backed loan system, there is the belief that postgraduate study is worth such effort and not just a superfluity. Not only are there more industries considering postgraduate qualifications a de facto minimum for such areas as social work, HR, librarianship, engineering and translation, not to mention finding the next generation of researchers, but in the government discourse can be found an overarching schema for fostering a knowledge-based economy (see the recent White Paper ‘Students at the Heart of the System’) that is globally competitive before a backdrop of advancing technologies and far greater spheres of influence for international companies.

One consequence of introducing such policy, founded on encouraging domestic students into postgraduate study so they can perform on the world stage, is a clash with policy on international students in Britain. Education is the fifth largest service export sector in the UK economy.  Despite recent visa controversies, the number of non-EU students has increased by 200% in the last decade. If Britain is to engender a knowledge-based economy that benefits domestic students then a loans system highlights an important tension between domestic and international students which tests the priorities of both universities and policymakers.

Nevertheless, the value of postgraduate study remains such that a postgraduate’s income enjoys a premium compared to an undergraduate’s. Such a policy can be seen as an investment which is relatively inexpensive to maintain considering a postgraduate’s higher likelihood of providing a return. HEC asks the government to consider a scheme that is targeted rather than universal, which would not crowd out ‘existing funding streams and carry heavy dead weight costs.’ Rather than ride roughshod, the intent would be to move towards ‘greater integration of funding for undergraduate and postgraduate education.’ By not demanding an overhaul of the system and explicitly recognising the other priorities of higher educational policy, there is much to be said for considering the plight of the postgraduate student cohorts in a reasoned policy format that provides tangible outcomes for a system that must adapt to ever-changing wants.

Kate Brittain


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