Is postgraduate study still just for the elite?

Give me a white coat any day. UCL Mathematical and Physical Sciences

The funding climate for the public sector in England has been as inclement as the actual weather recently. So the government’s recent allocation of £50m to bring down the barriers for entry into postgraduate education is a welcome relief.

Critics will argue this is neither a new commitment, having been first announced in July 2013, nor new money since funds have been re-directed from the short-lived National Scholarship Programme.

Nevertheless, this is certainly new funding for postgraduate education, responding to demands from a growing list of reports about the problems with UK postgraduate education. It follows the introduction of a loan system for postgraduate students in Scotland late last year.

Postgraduate boom

Why the concern? Surely postgraduate study is the esoteric activity of that small minority of graduates wishing to become academics? This is an increasingly inaccurate portrayal. Postgraduate study is becoming a prerequisite for entry to some careers and there is evidence that it offers general advantages in the labour market.

A study for The Sutton Trust found postgraduates attracted a wage premium, one that has not diminished while the number of postgraduates has increased – and increase they have. Although postgraduates are a minority of all higher education students, their numbers are substantial and growing, with little short of revolutionary growth in the last quarter of a century.

Growth of UK postgraduate student numbers 1960 - 2010.

But beneath this headline growth there are worrying signs. UK universities have been exceptionally successful in attracting international postgraduates, making postgraduate education an important export. Alongside this, numbers of UK postgraduates have stagnated and declined in some areas.

Under supply

There are three main reasons why this is a problem. The first is economic competitiveness. Our economy requires highly-skilled and developed workers to innovate and to sustain the kind of high-value employment which British governments of all shades have prized.

Developing economies such as China and Brazil are investing in postgraduate education as a means of achieving this. We should be wary of simple “educational arms race” arguments, but it certainly appears that, in some sectors, there are issues with the supply of postgraduate-trained workers and entrepreneurs.

A second reason, closely allied to the first, relates to the nature of 21st century knowledge. In many fields, an undergraduate degree is no longer sufficient grounding and more specialised understanding and skills are needed. Humanity faces a set of challenges – climate change, financial crisis, international conflict, a growing population – requiring the application of specialist knowledge and highly developed problem-solving, the very assets which postgraduate education promises.

Who can afford to be a postgrad?

But questions of equity and social justice also loom large. There are concerns that postgraduate education is only available to those from advantaged backgrounds. Much attention and effort has been expended on widening participation to first degrees. There is a risk that any gains there are nullified if inequality simply passes up to postgraduate level.

These concerns have focused particularly on the effect of the most recent changes to undergraduate funding which introduced tuition fees of up to £9,000 for many UK students. Carrying such large debts, will any but the most well-heeled be able to consider a higher degree?

Funding is difficult to obtain for domestic students on taught masters degrees. The loans available to undergraduates are not available to most UK postgraduates. Professional Career Development Loans provide one possibility, but have been heavily criticised for stringent terms, a difficult application process and tight restriction on eligible courses.

The risk here is that only those who can turn to the Bank of Mum and Dad will be able to participate. We need better evidence on whether debt is a deterrent to postgraduate study; but it certainly seems that lack of credit is an issue.

Perhaps a more important consequence of £9,000 undergraduate tuition fees is an accompanying rise in postgraduate fees, which have seen rapid inflation recently.

We know that graduates from higher socio-economic backgrounds are the most likely to enter taught postgraduate degrees, but it is not known how much this is due to finance or whether it is related to more academic factors, such as the university attended or subject studied.

Women and students from certain minority ethnic groups are also less likely to enter higher degrees, with finance a less obvious explanation. The Higher Education Funding Council for England’s Intentions After Graduation Survey, shows that these under-represented groups have strong aspirations for postgraduate study, but somewhere along the way ambition appears to be thwarted.

It is difficult to understand the situation partly because postgraduate study is complex. It includes 21-year-old graduates progressing immediately to a higher degree, alongside many early-career graduates returning for further study after underemployment. And there also also older workers taking a part-time programme related to their job, often with employer support.

Determining who counts as under-represented and deserving of public support in this diverse group is tricky. It is especially so for postgraduate “returners”, since traditional measures of parental circumstances may lose validity.

Take two hypothetical graduates. One the son of a bus driver and school cook who has just graduated from a Russell Group university on a full grant. The other the daughter of two barristers who graduated five years ago from her local university, lives independently and has been unemployed for the last 18 months. Which is the more disadvantaged?

Projects funded by HEFCE’s £25m Postgraduate Support Scheme are intended to start providing answers to these questions about access to postgraduate education. Twenty projects involving 40 English universities will investigate funding, access, internships and placements, and the advice and guidance on offer to prospective postgraduates. As the dark clouds gather, it offers a ray of sunshine for postgraduate study in the UK.

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