The National Union of Students (NUS) this week revealed that a graduate’s financial contribution to public purse is £138,199 per average graduate. The claimed overall figure of eighty-two billion pounds could be increased if undergraduates aspiring to continue education were not impeded by financial barriers to postgraduate education.
The Universities’ Minister, David Willets, agrees that “postgraduate study is good for students, good for universities and good for the economy.” Despite this acknowledgment, the state of postgraduate funding means students from all backgrounds will not feel able to continue their education, against the wishes of the Minister.
The government’s failure to invest in postgraduate education means in greater fees and diminished funding, sparking what the cohort of universities forming the 1994 Group call, the ‘postgraduate crisis’. With no student support system for postgraduates and the requirement of paying fees upfront, it is of little surprise that almost 80 per cent of postgraduate students are privately funded. Whereas, funding from employers and the State accounts for fewer than 15 per cent of students combined. As UK students are the hit hardest by a higher education policy where affluence is a prerequisite, an opportunity to secure greater economic growth in the future passes by.
Fortunately, the government has made offerings of financial support to postgraduates. The Chancellor, George Osborne’s, commitment in the Spending Review to provide 50 million pounds worth of support to postgraduates from 2015 has been since supplemented by a £25 million pound fund to help disadvantaged postgraduate students. However, this financial support falls far short of a full loan. The Chancellor’s gift to postgraduates came at the expense of £300 million of support for undergraduates, which will still prevent hopeful young people from getting into undergraduate education and therefore unable to progress into education beyond that.
Rather than providing inadequate money pots for universities to aid postgraduate students, a bigger, bolder policy should be implemented. The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has suggested that students studying a taught master’s degree be permitted to borrow £10,000. This loan would be repaid at a rate of nine per cent on any earnings between fifteen to twenty-one thousand pounds. The repayment threshold, lower than that for undergraduates, would ensure that the upfront cost to the state would not be significant.
This financial support system, akin to that for undergraduates, would prevent students from funding their postgraduate courses through personal savings or partly through riskier sources such as credit cards or overdrafts, as the NUS has exposed.
Hopes of greater prosperity through greater inclusivity in postgraduate education seems to prove a difficult sell to major political parties. While a ‘one nation economy’ gives Labour adequate scope to invest in postgraduate education, the party currently has no official policy on the area. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has resisted the introduction of an undergraduate style loan system while the Liberal Democrat’s policy going into last week’s party conference was supportive of a £10,000 loan contingent on income.
A break from the short-termism which has made savings from postgraduate education may enable a strategy that is more receptive to future growth and appreciative of the role postgraduate education has to play in that. A political consensus will therefore need to be forged, leaving a lot of work still to be done.