Education & Family

Postgraduate study an exclusive golf club, says report

Students in library
Image caption Centre Forum is calling for a new loan scheme for postgraduate study

Postgraduate education in the UK is like an exclusive golf club, where only the wealthy need apply, claims the liberal think-tank, Centre Forum.

High fees and limited funding are increasingly squeezing talented graduates out of postgraduate study, it says in a report.

The current postgraduate funding scheme is "breathtakingly inadequate" and needs overhaul, say the report authors.

The government welcomed the report "as a useful contribution to the debate".

'Priced out'

Postgraduate study is increasingly dominated by people who can pay course fees upfront, argues the study.

The lack of an undergraduate style loans system means poorer students are often unable to take up places on postgraduate courses, it says.

The report is particularly critical of the government backed professional and career development loan scheme (PCDLS).

The scheme makes loans too hard to obtain, it says - in 2010 it helped only 5,700 graduates finance their studies, less than 3% of the total number of home students who started postgraduate courses that year.

The repayment arrangements are also too demanding say the report authors - the government pays the interest during the course, but as soon as it is over students must start repayments, including interest, no matter how little they may be earning.

The study draws on figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency which suggest that the number of UK graduates enrolling on taught masters degrees is in decline in England, particularly among part-time students.

"There was a 4.5% fall in UK postgraduate participation at English institutions in 2011, while first year part-time enrolments in England fell by almost a quarter.

"Without policy intervention, these trends are likely to continue, the club is getting more exclusive", warn the authors.

"Even among graduates with the best first degrees, those from more affluent households are much likelier to be found on postgraduate courses".

With postgraduate qualifications increasingly required by employers, a proper strategy for funding postgraduate education is vital both for social mobility and to ensure that the UK has enough highly skilled workers, Centre Forum argues.

"No country has ever seen its growth rate fall because it has overeducated its population but there are plenty of examples of countries that have suffered from having too few skilled workers".

The report calls for the PCDLS to be scrapped and replaced by a new postgraduate loan scheme, similar to the existing undergraduate student loan scheme, which students start paying off once they start earning more than £21,000 a year.

The government should set up pilots to determine the best model for a new loan scheme "as a priority".

Universities should also raise funds from financial markets, donations and endowments to run postgraduate scholarship schemes for low income students, they argue.

'Extreme gamble'

A spokesman for the Department of Business Industry and Skills said the government was committed to supporting postgraduate study.

Funding for taught and research postgraduate programmes would increase by more than £200m in the two years to 2015, he added.

"We have asked Hefce [the Higher Education Funding Council for England] to review participation in postgraduate study, following the changes to undergraduate funding, as part of a longer term assessment and evaluation of the impact of funding changes."

Rachel Wenstone from the National Union of Students said: "You increasingly have to be either extremely rich, extremely lucky, or take an extreme gamble, taking on dangerous levels of debt, to take a master's in this country.

"The government needs to listen to experts and find an alternative that provides real support for students to pay their fees and support themselves while they study."

Nicola Dandridge from Universities UK, said: "The limited funding options available for postgraduate study are a cause for concern.

"It is not yet clear how changes to undergraduate fees will affect graduates' decisions on further study but it is right that postgraduate funding should come under closer scrutiny.

"Universities UK believes that there is a need for a solution which combines both public and private funding so that no-one with the ability and motivation to undertake postgraduate study is prevented from doing so by financial barriers."

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