Postgraduate education in the UK faces unprecedented challenges (“‘Postgraduate premium’ fuels vicious cycle of social inequality”, News, 7 February). There is a crisis in funding and access. Following several years of growth, recent Higher Education Statistics Agency data reveal that postgraduate enrolments are starting to decline. There is a major question mark over the future, especially with the first “£9k students” graduating in 2015. The Higher Education Commission notes that institutions and employers have repeatedly voiced concerns that demand for postgraduate study will be affected by higher undergraduate fees. We need a solution.
The financial support available to taught postgraduates is severely limited, especially in light of the research councils’ restrictions on master’s-level funding. Students who cannot rely on savings or parental contributions are supporting themselves through dangerous methods, such as paying for tuition fees on credit cards or through the use of commercial loans. Professional and career development loans are of particular concern given their high interest rates and short repayment time frames. In short, many students are being priced out of the system or are getting into trouble staying in it.
In a knowledge economy, postgraduate research is the foundation for many vital professions, from academia to engineering. With master’s degrees considered a condition for continuing on to research in many subjects and an important element of research training, we must redevelop the system. Students leaving university at 21 saddled with thousands of pounds of debt are less likely to be willing or able to incur the costs of postgraduate degrees with little or no external funding available to them.
Taught postgraduate study risks becoming a luxury inaccessible to most. This cannot stand: it must instead be seen as the “new frontier of widening participation” by policymakers. The alternative is to risk turning a number of professions into elitist domains populated solely by practitioners from rich backgrounds.
A sustainable funding structure is required now: we cannot wait until this time bomb has blown up in our faces. In this light, we are organising a campaign that will exert pressure on the government to address the problem by introducing an appropriate funding system that recognises the distinct needs of taught and research postgraduates.
Warwick Students’ Union
University of Warwick
Regarding “‘Postgraduate premium’ fuels vicious cycle of social inequality”, there is a clear correlation between postgraduate qualifications and higher income, and those from wealthier backgrounds are much more likely to possess such qualifications. However, correlation does not equal causation, and it is not clear whether the higher income reported is a consequence of coming from wealthier backgrounds or from having postgraduate degrees. For instance, what is the relationship between background and salary for those with only bachelor’s degrees?
I would like to see postgraduate qualifications open to all regardless of wealth, but I would not want to encourage students on
the basis of possibly misleading data on their likely income if that is related to class rather than qualification.