News blog: Priced out of postgraduate education?

Holly Else looks at how the rising cost of university study might affect willingness to study at postgraduate level

August 1, 2015
Student loan

The poorest students in England will graduate from university with debts of up to £53,000 now that maintenance grants have been replaced by loans.

This is a huge amount considering that just 18 years ago, higher university tuition was free and the least wealthy students qualified for grants to help cover living costs. But let's stop for a minute and consider what the effects this seemingly ever-increasing cost of an undergraduate education could have on postgraduate study.

If a student wants to take a postgraduate masters to gain skills vital for employability or in preparation for a doctorate, he or she has the option to take another £10,000 government-backed loan to cover some costs, bringing the total to £63,000.

If they decide to pursue a PhD they could borrow a further £25,000 to fund the qualification. As many have said, this loan will barely “scratch the surface” of the full cost of a PhD. So perhaps the student may need overdrafts and credit cards to cover help some living costs.

But even without any added debts derived from postgraduate living expenses the total in hock from the full gamut of undergraduate and postgraduate education is £88,000. It’s a huge amount.

For £88,000 you could buy this three bedroom house in North Yorkshire, or this farm in Kent. Will prospective students be willing to embark on postgraduate study knowing that this could be the financial outcome?

A recent study has already suggested that a PhD loan scheme “may not be the right approach” as prospective doctoral students did not want to add more debt to their personal finances.

As for master’s level qualifications, sector figures have previously warned that students could be lured to other European countries where courses in several locations are now taught in English and many have good financial support mechanisms that make them cheaper than the UK.

The sums needed to fund a postgraduate education in the UK pale in comparison to that seen outside Europe. A US student typically pays fees of $30,000-$40,000 (£19,300-£25,700) for masters and $123,500-$181,500 (£79,300-£116,600) for a doctorate, for example.

Back in the UK there is much debate about how much student debt would actually ever be paid back, but the next generation of highly education citizens could have, on paper at least, amassed a huge level of debt before they have even started a career. Is it worth it?

Will these people be able to cope with such financial baggage? Would such levels of student-related debt have an adverse effect on the ability to get a mortgage, for example? And importantly, what contributions to the economy will they be able to make on their monthly take-home salary after the relevant deductions?

Current proposals suggest that undergraduate and postgraduate master’s loans will be repaid at a rate of 9 per cent of earnings above £21,000 simultaneously. It is not yet clear what the repayment plans are for PhD loans.

Given that a typical doctoral graduate earns £40,700 seven to nine years after graduation, they will be repaying around £300 of their take home pay towards two of the loans, with an as yet unknown amount for their PhD loan. This is just £30 less than the cheapest mortgage deals available to first time buyers for that North Yorkshire house.

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