No postgrad funds, no knowledge economy

November 15, 2012

When we come to discuss postgraduate education a decade from now, no one will be able to say that we were not warned about the severe challenges facing the sector ("Debt put postgrads off before fees hike", 8 November).

The recent report by the Higher Education Commission leaves no doubt about the consequences of doing nothing to support greater participation in postgraduate education by UK students. We risk significant economic damage if we cannot solve the issue of affordability.

The UK has a proud postgraduate tradition. For years, students attracted by its quality have come from around the globe, contributing hugely to our knowledge base while they are here. Yet, while postgraduate study is more popular than ever with overseas students, domestically there is a clear threat of declining numbers. This hardly fits with the UK's ambitions to be a leading knowledge-based economy.

It is essential to find ways of supporting more UK students to undertake advanced study. With our competitors overseas already investing heavily in their own provision, there is also a risk that in future, overseas students may choose to undertake postgraduate studies closer to home.

Last year, the University of Southampton and its students' union jointly voiced concerns about the lack of clear proposals for supporting UK postgraduate education, concerns we now reiterate. Existing support schemes for postgraduates have been found wanting and are hardly used. However, there are other examples that we might learn from, such as Australia's Higher Education Loan Program, which allows for lifetime maximum loans that can be used at different times throughout individuals' lives and careers.

The HEC makes a compelling case for postgraduate student loans, pointing out that the likely rate of repayment would be far higher than that predicted for undergraduate loans.

The UK needs to develop its own integrated system of financial support, encompassing undergraduate and postgraduate study, and reflecting the reality of lifetime learning. We cannot allow a situation where UK students are unable to access the world-class postgraduate education available in this country because it is unaffordable.

Don Nutbeam, Vice-chancellor, University of Southampton

Sam Ling, President, Southampton University Students' Union

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