The lifetime value of a postgraduate degree is rising, which is increasing social inequality, research published by fair access charity the Sutton Trust has found.
Someone with a master’s degree can expect to earn on average £500 more a year than someone holding only a bachelor’s degree - a “premium” that is rising, says the report The Postgraduate Premium, published on 7 February.
Meanwhile data show that those with postgraduate degrees are increasingly coming from richer family backgrounds, said the report’s co-author Stephen Machin, professor of economics at University College London and research director at the London School of Economics and Political Science’s Centre for Economic Performance.
“Access to postgraduate education is becoming increasingly stratified by family income, and [recent postgraduates] are being paid more, so it’s a source of rising inequality,” he told Times Higher Education.
The report, co-authored by Joanne Lindley from the University of Surrey, also shows that the proportion of the 26- to 60-year-old workforce with postgraduate qualifications has surged, increasing from 4 per cent in 1996 to 11 per cent today - a rise from 600,000 to 2.1 million people.
According to the trust, the findings raise concerns for bright graduates from low- and middle-income backgrounds, who might be priced out of postgraduate study and find it difficult to stand out in today’s professional labour market.
No government support system exists for postgraduate study. The report says the government should introduce a targeted, state-backed loan scheme for postgraduates, as well as monitoring the effect of new £9,000 undergraduate fees on uptake of postgraduate education.
It also recommends that the Office for Fair Access look at universities’ postgraduate recruitment patterns as part of its annual assessment of access agreements, while the professions should act to ensure they fully represent society.
“We need to have a much more concerted effort by government, universities and the professions to ensure that postgraduate study is about stretching the brightest minds and not simply dipping into the deepest pockets,” said Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, writing in the report’s foreword.
Sir Deian Hopkin, former vice-chancellor of London South Bank University and a member of the Higher Education Commission, which last year argued the case for a limited state-backed loan system, said the report sharpens evidence for supporting postgraduate education.
However Andy Westwood, chief executive of GuildHE, warned against using the findings in support of a universal loan system, which could have knock-on effects in terms of costs and government regulation. “A real problem for policymakers is what a low-income…person is when we’re talking about postgraduates: a group where two-thirds are over 25 and might well be in a different socio-economic group from [the one] they came [from],” he said.
Professor Machin added that the findings stress the need to examine the worsening position of workers with no or limited qualifications, especially men, who in educational terms are “falling further and further behind”.