It's hard to go on

If fees reform puts graduates off postgraduate study, where will academia find its new blood, asks Sir Adam Roberts

December 23, 2010

The government's narrow victory in the Commons on 9 December does not mark the end of public and political debate over changes to the funding of higher education: it starts a new phase. Although the basis of future university funding is now clearer, there are some unexplored and potentially damaging consequences of the new fees regime that need to be tackled.

Up to now, the debate has been almost exclusively focused on first degrees. Major issues concerning the health of the postgraduate sector and research base have barely been addressed. Will students who have already incurred debts of £30,000 or more in their undergraduate studies be discouraged from embarking on postgraduate courses? And what will be the impact on the future ability of disciplines to renew themselves by attracting postgraduates into academic careers?

The Smith Review, One Step Beyond: Making the Most of Postgraduate Education, delivered in March 2010, found that postgraduate education in the UK is a great asset. Over the past 12 years, it has grown by 36 per cent - faster than undergraduate education - and almost 25 per cent of students in UK higher education are postgraduates. Smith urged the need to train even more of them to ensure that the UK has the higher-level skills it needs.

In contrast to the undergraduate sector, postgraduate education relies on relatively little public funding. Taught and research courses are partly subsidised, most of the costs are recovered via fees. Thirty per cent of postgraduate researchers, and 60 per cent of taught postgraduates, receive no support towards tuition fees or living costs. There is no system of subsidised student support like that available to undergraduates.

For decades, UK postgraduates have had difficulty funding their studies. The number of domestic postgraduates in the UK academy increased by only 14 per cent in the past 12 years - far less than the growth among overseas students. The step change in debt arising from undergraduate study can only make the obstacles tougher. This could impoverish our academic gene pool.

The Browne Review gave only cursory consideration to postgraduates and found "no evidence that changes to funding or student finance are needed to support student demand or access". Although I agree that it is not a well-researched area, I can think of evidence: the high quality of those turned down for grants; the fact that while overseas students have flocked here for graduate study, UK numbers have increased only modestly; and the shortage of British applicants for certain academic posts.

Lord Browne does, however, have something to say about support for certain graduate courses. He suggests that his proposed Higher Education Council should "fund postgraduate courses on the same basis as undergraduate courses - by targeting investment on courses that are a priority for the public interest".

This raises the question, which is at least as tricky for postgraduate as for undergraduate courses, of who is to decide, and on what basis, which postgraduate courses should be supported?

Despite the government's welcome protection of the science and research budget, in various disciplines the knowledge base could easily fail to renew itself because the outstanding scholars and researchers of the future cannot afford to pursue the career paths their excellence merits. It would be an appalling loss if certain disciplines or subdisciplines contributing to learning and understanding became socially exclusive, went into decline, or in extreme cases died out. To reduce these risks, we need a good supply of funded studentships and postdoctoral fellowships. The British Academy has made the latter its highest priority.

Many, especially in the humanities and social sciences, feel that the removal of direct funding for teaching fails to acknowledge the public value that these disciplines deliver. The state must do more to signal its recognition of the value of these subjects, and of graduate studies generally. If serious thought is not urgently given to the issue of postgraduate funding across all subjects, the UK will be missing a chance to make the most of some of its greatest assets.

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