Commission calls for postgraduate loan scheme

There is a "strong case" for a limited state-backed student loan scheme to be introduced for master's degree students, the Higher Education Commission has concluded.

The commission, which includes politicians and senior figures from the academy and business, expressed fears that the difficulty of obtaining finance was preventing an increasing number of UK students from entering postgraduate education.

The commission's report, Postgraduate Education: An Independent Inquiry by the Higher Education Commission, published today, points to the diminishing availability of funding through the "uncompetitive and unattractive" Professional and Career Development Loan system.

The universities, employers and students that contributed to the commission's eight-month inquiry also expressed widespread fears that the new undergraduate fees regime will make UK undergraduates less willing to take on extra debt to fund postgraduate study.

Don Nutbeam, vice-chancellor of the University of Southampton, told the inquiry that "unless we address this funding challenge, postgraduate education will only be for the rich and for international students, and will not meet the evolving future needs of our advanced economy".

The inquiry, chaired by IBM vice-president Graham Spittle, concluded that the cost to the Treasury of a "well-designed income-contingent postgraduate student loan scheme is likely to be low, given the lifetime wage premium postgraduates enjoy".

But it also suggests the scheme be designed to complement rather than replace existing funding streams and be targeted at courses deemed strategically important, or which are a "de facto requirement" for entry into the academy or specific professions.

It says the government should immediately establish a taskforce to examine the feasibility of such a scheme, and require it to report by December 2013 so that any scheme can be established before the graduation of the first cohort of higher-fees undergraduates in 2015.

The report also echoes widespread calls for the government to remove international students from immigration figures amid a fear that "the discourse around the inclusion of students in the immigration cap has led to a damaging perception that the UK does not welcome international students".

"Much of our postgraduate provision is unviable without international students. Care must be taken that changes in the immigration system do not adversely impact on our national capacity in key disciplines," it says.

The report points to a "misalignment between the postgraduate courses taken by students and the courses demanded by industry and the academy" and also calls for funders and statistics agencies to improve the evidence base about postgraduate fees, admissions, socio-economic makeup and employment outcomes.

Dr Spittle said: "The postgraduate sector needs to be brought in from the cold and fully embraced as part of an integrated education system."

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