Equality is best policy

March 7, 1997

Postgraduate study should be funded across the board like first degrees

The recent announcement of a loans scheme for postgraduates organised by the '94 Group of universities and the Midland Bank has reopened discussion on postgraduate funding. Two main questions arise. Is this kind of loan a valuable addition to sources of funding for prospective postgraduate students? Or is it just a marketing exercise by the institutions and banks involved?

The National Postgraduate Committee, representing United Kingdom postgraduate students, has always been interested in the development of better funding mechanisms for postgraduate study. But it is the NPC's view that the Midland link-up with the 11 '94 Group universities (Bath, Birkbeck, Durham, East Anglia, Essex, Exeter, Lancaster, LSE, Reading, Surrey, Sussex, York and Warwick) is a high-profile idea which completely misses the mark.

How should postgraduate study be supported? There is a single, comprehensive system for the funding of undergraduates, but postgraduates are sponsored by a range of organisations and have no guarantee of any grant.

Prospective humanities researchers, for example, are unlikely to get any backing, and will probably have to choose between a teaching assistantship or self-funding. Engineers and scientists, however, are substantially more likely to receive a grant.

The dependence of funding on subject is unfortunate; it suggests that engineering postgraduates are of greater value to society than history postgrads. No such distinction is made for undergraduates, as the value of a degree in indicating analytic ability is recognised. Surely the value of the research skills acquired by postgraduates should make them valued? Alas not, it seems.

Higher education's low political profile is reflected by party manifestos, parliamentary debate and press coverage. Postgraduate education is discussed even less. At the last NPC conference one politician admitted that neither he nor his party knew anything about postgraduate education.

This refreshing honesty reveals one of the biggest problems with postgraduate funding: a lack of direction. The approach to funding has been ad hoc. We must look to the Dearing committee's deliberations for any clear outline of postgraduate funding.

So what is wrong with the '94 Group proposal? From the information we have at the moment, the scheme appears essentially the same as the Midland's Professional Studies Loan which is largely marketed to those undertaking professional or vocational training. There are several concerns. One is that the comparatively short repayment times (seven or 11 years depending on the amount of the loan) will result in large repayments which make the loan inappropriate for those without a guarantee of a well-paid job on completion of their study.

The loan conditions stipulate that applicants would have to outline their career plans to show their ability to repay the loan; this makes sense for the bank, but it also diminishes the value of the scheme. Postgraduates who intend to remain in academe as postdoctoral research assistants are unlikely to be able to afford the repayments: it is therefore unlikely that they would receive a loan in the first place. Those who could risk a loan are those who are likely to go into well-paid jobs; this applies mainly to those in vocational, professional and technical subjects, who already have most access to funding.

One of the worrying aspects of the '94 Group's deal with Midland is that a group of institutions is arranging its own funding system rather than working towards the compehensive system which is desperately needed.

Furthermore, the adoption of a private loans system by a number of universities may be a first step towards the introduction of top-up fees, and the marketing of the '94 Group as an elite group of institutions. Such an outcome would only fragment higher education further and would complicate the funding of postgraduates.

In principle, however, loans schemes could be useful, as they can provide a new funding option for students, where alternatives are very limited. Certain conditions need to be met. The NPC believes that any postgraduate loan scheme should satisfy a few simple criteria: * The repayment periods should be long enough to make the payments manageable

* There should be provision for those who wish to extend their study, such as those who do a masters degree and decide to continue their research with a PhD

* There should be no distinctions by subject, institution or student background (eg academic qualifications or nationality) * The scheme should not rely solely on high street banks for provision, but should be publicly administered to ensure that it is available to all on equal terms

The NPC believes that these criteria can be met: the undergraduate student loans system, for example, meets most of them. As a first move, the Government might consider making student loans available to postgraduates: there would be negligible extra administrative burden, and the income-contingency provisions of the scheme make it better than any proposed private schemes.

Existing schemes have been developed by banks as commercial ventures and they cannot be as effective in widening access to postgraduate education as a well-designed public loan system. There appears to be no attempt to consult the potential "customers" of such schemes about their design: the '94 Group proposal was prepared without any input from student representatives, who know first-hand how funding systems work "on the ground".

It would be worthwhile, if not essential, for institutions or banks planning loan schemes to consult with students to discover where the problems lie and where there is most need for funding.

The Midland did not appear to understand postgraduate study when it launched the scheme with the '94 Group. This is no surprise since very few people outside academe know about the breadth and complexity of postgraduate study. The advice, both to banks designing schemes and students considering such a loan, is simple: look before you leap.

John Gray is a postgraduateat Aston University and thegeneral secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee.

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