Leading universities have called on the government to consider removing the planned age limit for postgraduate loans, or at least to exempt students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
State-backed loans for English-domiciled students on master’s programmes, which will be introduced next year, are to be made available only to people aged under 30.
But six Russell Group institutions have questioned this approach after running postgraduate scholarship schemes during 2014-15 for students from under-represented backgrounds. Of 416 awards that were made, one in five (82) were to learners aged 30 and older.
At one institution in the consortium – made up of the universities of Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield, Warwick and York, plus Newcastle University – 38 per cent of scholarship holders were 30 or older.
The government believes that older people tend to be better placed to secure alternative finance for postgraduate study.
But a report from the six universities says they found that over-30s were more likely than younger students to have widening participation characteristics such as a disability, a background in the care system, or caring responsibilities of their own. Frequently, it was this trait or traits that had prevented them from progressing to postgraduate study sooner.
Scholarship students aged over 30 tended not to be in a strong financial position, the report says. Among unsuccessful scholarship applicants of all ages who did not enrol in postgraduate study, 92 per cent said that lack of financial support was a key barrier.
Tony Strike, chair of the consortium steering group and Sheffield’s director of strategy, planning and change, said the government should consider whether the age limit should be retained at all, or waived for those from widening participation backgrounds.
“If one of the hopes of introducing a loan scheme is to create fairer access, then the age...rule is going to negate one of the objectives of the scheme,” he said.
The report also draws on a survey of first degree graduates from the six universities, which suggests that leavers from poorer backgrounds with undergraduate fee debts may be more averse to taking on further borrowing than those from more affluent upbringings.
Dr Strike said that there was a case for continuing a targeted scholarship scheme, alongside a loan system.