The government must address funding for postgraduate students if it is sincere about promoting equal access and lifelong learning, according to the National Postgraduate Committee.
This should include extending student loans to postgraduates and providing better funded stipends, said NPC general secretary Martin Gough, who was speaking at a student rally at Westminster on Wednesday.
Mr Gough believes that postgraduates have been largely ignored in the debate on higher education, yet they will be severely hit by changes to undergraduate funding and increased undergraduate debt. It will be those from the least well off backgrounds who will suffer most, he said.
"We have grave concerns for the maintenance of equality of access to postgraduate education," said Mr Gough. "Dearing and the government have chosen to leave postgraduate funding as it is. Nevertheless, the impact of the proposed financial changes at undergraduate level will have repercussions in the postgraduate sector. The increased debt of undergraduate study will discourage entry into postgraduate education generally."
He added: "Demand for places on postgraduate courses may remain high taken as a whole. But those starting from the position of least advantage financially will feel the burden of this debt most acutely. The result will be that many most suited to postgraduate study will be denied access in practice."
Mr Gough said many state grants for postgraduate study were earmarked for those with masters degrees. Yet there is little state funding for masters courses, with many students having to resort to Career Development Loans, which must be paid back during PhD study. This, on top of undergraduate debt, puts a huge financial burden on postgraduates, Mr Gough said.
"The Dearing review recommends this form of finance as particularly appropriate to postgraduate need," said Mr Gough. "But we should think of these loans more as economic deterrents to postgraduate study." Instead he called for more and better funded state awards to attract the best postgraduates regardless of financial background and the extension of student loans for undergraduates to postgraduate education.
"This option is not ruled out by the wording of the Teaching and Higher Education Bill," he said. "For the majority of postgraduates without state studentships this would provide a more realistic chance to embark and to complete studies at postgraduate level. A student loan would offer a preferential rate of interest that does not have to be paid off until a certain income level had been reached."