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Growing support for postgraduate study

5 June 2015
Daniel Hurley

Dan Hurley

Programme Manager
Universities UK
Martina Tortis

Martina Tortis

Former Policy Analyst
Universities UK
Post graduate student
Over the past six months, postgraduate education has come increasingly under the spotlight. Two government announcements recently open for consultation – a loans system for taught Masters students in England, and proposals to strengthen support for postgraduate research students – signal a growing awareness of the value of higher study to the individual and the wider public.

Not only do postgraduates typically enjoy an uplift in earnings compared to those with only an undergraduate degree, (around £5,500 for Masters graduates), they are less likely to be unemployed and – as more and more jobs require a postgraduate qualification – make a key contribution to the UK’s skills and knowledge bases.

Worryingly though, the number of UK/EU entrants to Masters courses fell by 17% between 2009–10 and 2012–13. Meanwhile, the size of the PGR student population has remained fairly stagnant, with only a small upturn of 5% in 2013-14 compared to an average 9% per year before 2010–11.

UUK has therefore welcomed proposals aimed at enhancing opportunities for postgraduates and, as part of the consultation process, highlighted a range of evidence from institutions across the country on some key issues for government to consider as these support mechanisms are developed.

Loans for taught Masters stude​​nts

For many considering taught Masters study, availability of a £10,000 loan will remove a significant barrier to entry – finance. Recent HEFCE data showed that 61% of undergraduates with no intention of studying at postgraduate level said fees are a deterring factor. Even those who secure a place on a course but subsequently turn it down most commonly cite a lack of access to finance as the reason behind their decision. With young students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds among the least likely to progress onto a Masters course, financial support can play a key part in widening participation here.

However, access to finance is an issue faced by many, and not just those aged under 30 (who the loans are currently proposed to be restricted to). In the current labour market, graduates need the ability to adapt to change, which often implies a need to up-skill or re-skill. With demographics in the UK shifting, and people working for longer, any demand from older cohorts will only increase.

Certain under-represented groups might also be disproportionately affected by the proposed eligibility criteria. For example, restricting loans to part-time students with a minimum 50% intensity of study could limit access for students who require a certain degree of flexibility when learning, perhaps because their family, childcare or other personal circumstances mean studying over a longer period is their only option.

The loans are also proposed to be restricted to English-domiciled students (and other EU nationals) studying in England. Making the loans portable across UK borders could help ensure that competition and quality remain key drivers in the postgraduate market, without placing any UK universities at a disadvantage.

​Support for postgraduate research students

A £25,000 loan could be a useful additional finance option, particularly in subjects where studentships are scarce. However, the scheme can only work if: it complements, rather than replaces, other instruments, it targets the right students ; it supports excellence; it doesn’t restrict access to students in specific subjects, given the diversity of PGR graduates’ careers and their huge impact across the economy. The loan amount should be considered further, as it only covers part of the cost of a PhD, but there are concerns that a larger loan might put off students who have taken up loans at lower levels.

Our broader message on PGR support, though, is that the current system works well and therefore government should prioritise investment in Research Council studentships and quality-related funding from the funding councils. Equally, stronger partnerships with industry can be forged by enhancing existing collaborative platforms and keeping them accessible across the sector and geographies, and linking into other schemes such as the Higher Education Innovation Fund and Knowledge Transfer Partnerships. 

Strengthening support for postgraduates is therefore quite complex. As these proposals are developed further, it is vital to consider not only how best to target support but how it can be used to ensure that demand for postgraduate study keeps pace with the evolving skills and research needs of the wider UK economy.

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