Only the privileged need apply

August 13, 2004

Too little attention has been paid to the financial plight of postgraduates, argues Tim Brown

Unexpectedly, the Higher Education Bill has brought postgraduate students good news. For some years the National Postgraduate Committee has campaigned for an Arts and Humanities Research Council to replace the Arts and Humanities Research Board and for the removal of the medieval visitor system for adjudicating over student complaints.

Now this is in sight and it will mean better postgraduate funding in the arts and humanities and a transparent and efficient student complaints system, which is especially needed given the complexity of research students' complaints.

All this good news, however, does not silence concerns about other elements of the Bill that suggest a rather uncertain future for postgraduate education in Britain.

The introduction of undergraduate top-up fees centres on the idea that all graduates will go into successful jobs and comfortably repay their student loans. Little attention has been paid to the fact that a number of today's graduates need to continue their studies beyond their first degree to gain the specialist knowledge they require for a particular career or to pursue postgraduate research. If they cannot get funding for this, they either have to dig into their savings or face further debt by taking out another loan.

Unlike undergraduates, postgraduates have to take out a career development loan or, if they are not eligible for that, a bank loan. Both types of loan charge commercial rates of interest, have significantly higher repayment instalments that are not income contingent and are incompatible with the proposed undergraduate loans.

With no certainty as to what employment they will find when they finish their studies, postgraduates face a risky future with no clear rules on deferment of repayment.

The NPC argues that at the very least the student loan should be extended to postgraduates, if the Government claims that graduates will repay their loan only once their earnings reach a certain level. This does not mean that the NPC supports top-up fees, or that it believes that debt in the region of Pounds 21,000 will make postgraduate education an attractive option, despite increased stipends from the research councils.

Even though the debt burden may be a hindrance to postgraduate education, graduates' desire to consider postgraduate degrees is growing. The increased number of graduates, which will not only be influenced by the 50 per cent participation in higher education target but also by foundation degrees, will also make having a first degree the norm.

The demand by employers for graduates with higher degrees inevitably will grow, creating a larger tier of graduates above those with first degrees.

The question the NPC asks is who, out of those 50 per cent, will continue and reach these higher levels of education? Those who cannot afford to extend their education full time may take the option of part-time study.

Indeed, some 60 per cent of the UK's postgraduates are part-time students.

With limited funding for part-time postgraduate study, this may be the only option for some of those graduates wishing to continue their education.

The supply of UK postgraduates is clearly under threat and the widening participation agenda has not yet reached this sector. What will the future face of postgraduate education look like? Will it be made up, as we fear, of a select group from Britain's privileged classes and an increasing number of international students, brought in to bridge the gap resulting from years of underfunding, which top-up fees, despite all the politics, will not come close to meeting?

Tim Brown is general secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee, which holds its annual conference in Coventry on August 12-15. For more details, visit www.npc.org.uk

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