A little lift could help everyone

Postgraduate study is a financial struggle for most, and low pay for graduate teaching assistants does nothing to alleviate it

April 24, 2014

Pity the poor postgraduate. Because she probably is poor (unless she’s independently wealthy, which would also explain how she’s got here).

And while she may not be as obvious a candidate for public sympathy as those queuing for the food bank, she deserves it – along with our admiration for beating the odds.

Speaking last week, Madeleine Atkins, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, spoke of her worry about taught postgraduate study in particular.

Just one in four taught master’s students is from the UK, she said, adding that this was now a concern for government. It certainly should be.

What is perplexing is how it has come to this. The point about unforeseen consequences is that you’re not supposed to see them coming. But three of the biggest issues facing universities today have been signposted in Las Vegas-style lights: the collapse in home postgraduates, the slowdown in international student numbers and the unsustainable undergraduate loan system.

What is perplexing is how it has come to this. The point about unforeseen consequences is that you’re not supposed to see them coming

Although they are separate issues, there are links: if overseas undergraduates can be put off by cack-handed visa policy, then so can postgraduates – a major problem when they prop up whole departments. And if the loans system is unaffordable even when it excludes postgraduates, what chance do they have of being brought in from the cold?

This is at the heart of the matter: the relentless focus on funding the 18-year-old full-time undergraduate has been at the expense of coherent policy in other areas (ironically, we don’t have coherent policy on undergraduate funding either).

The result is that postgraduate education is now frequently cited as the new frontier for widening participation: the preserve of the rich or the few who can secure funding, plus international students willing and able to find the money – mainly to study a small clutch of subjects. For those without wealthy parents or research council funding, the only option has been to apply for a career development loan (from banks, with interest rates set accordingly), and many who might have gone on to further study appear to have baulked at this.

As student debts grow, the suspicion must be that this could get worse.

This week, we report on an issue that affects those who do go into postgraduate study, especially on the research side: the rates of pay for graduate teaching assistants. These vary significantly, and given the financial position of many who have taken the postgraduate plunge, they really matter.

Writing on our website recently, a reader said: “I basically had a year when I did almost no work on my PhD because I was teaching full-time for a paltry sum I couldn’t live on. I almost killed myself trying to do fieldwork and teach in years two and three, and then had to fund myself through a fourth year to write the damn thing. I often wondered what the students would think if they knew their essays and exams were being given 10-15 minutes’ consideration max so I could come in at something like minimum wage.”

Many of the financial challenges faced by postgraduates are outside universities’ control, but here is one area in which some at least could do more to smooth a horribly bumpy path. It’s the right thing to do, for the good of universities as well as their postgraduates.


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