No silver bullet

February 18, 2016

The question of whether the fall in UK undergraduate applicants spells trouble for universities also needs to be asked at postgraduate level (“End of boom time for universities?”, 5 February). The recently published Higher Education Statistics Agency figures for 2014-15 show that although there was only a 0.2 per cent decrease across all postgraduate enrolments, there were notable decreases in master’s and “other PG” qualifications across the UK, the European Union and overseas domiciled groups.

Although the postgraduate loan scheme is a welcome initiative, there are other major factors that universities need to consider and address. We have a declining pool of undergraduates, which means that there will be a decrease in the numbers being pulled through to postgraduate level. The sector is going to have to substantially increase the postgraduate participation numbers of those aged 26 and above from the UK and/or EU and overseas enrolments if the figures are to stay static, let alone grow.

The recently published Postgraduate Experience Project Report (funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England) showed that there is a concern about debt among postgraduate applicants and students, with many delaying postgraduate study because of it. The study also found that the poor state of the UK’s economy had had an impact. Concerns about not getting back into the job market or not getting time off were reasons for delaying postgraduate study.

Students who are already paying back debt from undergraduate fees at 9 per cent may feel that taking on an extra loan that is repaid at 6 per cent concurrently is too much. The study showed that among current postgraduate students, undertaking more loans was not a viable option.

Attracting applicants and students to postgraduate study is also likely to be affected by the discussion about the “real value of postgraduate degrees” and what employers need from graduates. Lastly, EU and international competitors whose courses are cheaper than those in the UK, with some being taught in English, could seriously affect recruitment.

As a sector, we have to ask some tough questions: it is practicable and sustainable to keep growing at this level of study? Is our product fit for purpose for future employer needs? And can we keep delivering what we do in the same way we have for the past 30 years? All the factors above suggest that the postgraduate loan scheme is unlikely to be the silver bullet that the sector may be relying on.

Michelle Morgan
Principal investigator and project leader of the Postgraduate Experience Project
Centre for Higher Education Research and Practice

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