Encourage lifetime learning with a flexible, integrated loan system

Postgraduate study is vital for the economy but the UK has struggled to fund it. Don Nutbeam suggests Australia has found the answer

July 15, 2010

As the dust settles on submissions to Lord Browne of Madingley's review of UK higher education funding, you have to look hard for any references to the financial needs of postgraduate students.

The emphasis on undergraduates is entirely understandable. They represent the majority of students in the sector and any change in student support and subsidies will have a direct impact on them and their families.

Yet it is important to make a link between the Browne review and the recently completed Smith review of postgraduate education. It prompts me to suggest that we would do well to examine how other countries meet the financial needs of postgraduates.

In his March 2010 report, One Step Beyond: Making the Most of Postgraduate Education, Adrian Smith argues powerfully for closer attention to be paid to the value of postgraduate education for individual students, the economy and society. As he rightly asserts, the skills of postgraduates are "critical for tackling major business challenges and driving innovation and growth", with "responsive and tailored" postgraduate taught (PGT) courses enabling the "upskilling" and retraining of the UK workforce. This view echoes that in the CBI's October 2009 report, Stronger Together, which encourages industry to help graduates develop the skills required for the workplace by providing "financial support to students to undertake postgraduate study, rather than to enter the labour market immediately".

Today's students will encounter a far more dynamic work environment than previous generations, and postgraduate qualifications will play a much greater role in their career entry and progression. While much of the growth in UK postgraduate provision has been driven by international student numbers, participation by domestic students has also risen steadily. PGT course participation has increased 22 per cent in the past decade.

Apart from some targeted public funding available for priority professions such as teaching and social work, UK students have no universal system of support available for postgraduate study. Fees are usually met from their own pockets or their employers', with a small percentage of students taking up professional and career-development loans from banks.

Concerns about access to postgraduate education were raised in the 2009 report by the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, chaired by Alan Milburn, which highlights major and persistent inequalities in social mobility. Importantly, it identifies the financial barriers to participation in postgraduate education and argues for "fairer financial support for postgraduate students" to overcome an emerging obstacle to social mobility and career advancement.

This issue is already being addressed overseas. Australia, for example, has seen a significant expansion in postgraduate participation, with a 15 per cent increase in domestic students on PGT courses between 2004 and 2008. Like the UK, Australia directly supports only a small number of PGT students studying courses of national priority. However, Australian PGT students are eligible for student loans under the Higher Education Loans Programme (Help). The postgraduate loan, Fee-Help, is a flexible lifetime maximum loan that can be used at different times throughout a person's life and career.

Importantly, Australia has integrated its postgraduate and undergraduate loan-support systems. Most domestic undergraduates draw on a different type of Help loan. But those students who are not eligible for this, or who use up all their entitlement, may then draw on Fee-Help.

The introduction of Fee-Help has consolidated the importance of postgraduate education in Australia's academy, providing flexibility for students and financial control for the government.

The translation of one country's system to another is usually more complex than it first appears. However, the principle of providing students with an integrated system that enables flexible access to loans throughout their educational careers has much merit. It offers an elegant solution to the challenge of opening up lifetime opportunities for personal advancement to members of the population who may have missed out earlier in life. It also presents a way to respond to changes in employment opportunities that will inevitably emerge as the economy evolves.

In addition, the lifetime "cap" is attractive to governments seeking to manage the costs associated with support for higher education.

It is inevitable that the Browne review will continue to draw attention on costs and financial support for undergraduates. But in all the noise of the discussion, it would be a blow to the UK's international competitiveness and a missed opportunity to support fairer access to education if we failed to create a forward-looking, integrated system of financial support that reflects the reality of lifetime learning.

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