The government is so obsessed with its science policy agenda that it is ignoring the issue of access at postgraduate level, the UK Council for Graduate Education has claimed.
The council called for the debate on access to embrace more than simply the issue of getting 18-year-olds into universities. It said government policies to concentrate research and even remove research-degree awarding powers could be disastrous for students in institutions outside the research elite.
At the annual conference of the UKCGE at Regent's College, higher education minister Margaret Hodge did little to allay the fears. She pointed to an 18 per cent rise in postgraduate numbers since 1996, saying that the introduction of fees had not harmed intake.
UKCGE chair Howard Green, dean of research and graduate school at Staffordshire University said: "The minister agreed there wasn't much discussion about postgraduates in the white paper. But she didn't address the potential impact."
Ms Hodge admitted that the government had "kicked into the long grass" the issue of postgraduate research-degree awarding powers by passing it to the funding councils and the Quality Assurance Agency. She also sidestepped a suggestion that students who went on to become academic teachers and researchers should get a fee waiver. "It is up to individual employers to decide if they want to make a contribution towards paying off student debts," she said.
Without significant financial changes, Professor Green said, universities would not be in a position to do this. "The considerable amount of new blood needed by the system will not arrive."
The council has served as a think-tank for the development of postgraduate education in the UK since it was set up in 1994. When the white paper came out, it warned: "Any increase in the scale of debt at graduation may deter young graduates to take on further study."
Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that students with first-class degrees were significantly more likely to go on to higher degrees and PhDs if they come from social classes one and two (the professions) than from classes four and five (partly skilled and unskilled workers).
"Quite a number of universities play a role in the access side for PhDs," Professor Green said. In particular, the numbers of part-time PhD students have risen. Many of these are people working at the same time or bringing up a family, so their choice of university is limited by their mobility.
Under the government's proposals, research would be concentrated and many institutions would be expected to pull out of the PhD market, leaving large parts of the country disadvantaged, Professor Green warned.