Postgraduate research loans 'could be restricted to certain subjects'

Department for Business, Innovation and Skills consultation asks whether funding should be limited to disciplines with strongest ‘scientific and economic case’

March 25, 2015

The government is considering whether to restrict postgraduate research loans to subjects “where the scientific and economic case is strongest”.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills today published a consultation on support for postgraduate study, which also poses the question of whether loans for postgraduate taught students could create “excessive course fee inflation”.

The consultation looks at the proposed £10,000 loans for postgraduate taught students and £25,000 loans for postgraduate research students announced by George Osborne, the chancellor, in December’s Autumn Statement and this month’s Budget respectively.

The document says that postgraduate taught provision is a “devolved matter in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland” and that the consultation “does not commit any of the Devolved Administrations of the United Kingdom to any UK-wide actions or a policy position in this respect”. The postgraduate taught loans would be available to English or EU-domiciled students, the consultation says.

Greg Clark, the universities and science minister, says in his foreword to the consultation that the proposals “represent a huge breakthrough for students, universities and the country. They provide, for the first time, guaranteed financial support of up to £10,000 repayable – as with the undergraduate loan system – when, and at a rate that graduates can afford it.”

Mr Clark says that postgraduate study is important for employers, the economy and individuals, but warns that “the number of UK-domiciled master’s students has been declining relative to our overseas competitors”.

He adds on the postgraduate research loans: “We intend to offer loans in addition to grant funding, not as a replacement, as part of ongoing effort to broaden and strengthen support for postgraduate research.”

The consultation says that the chancellor’s proposal for postgraduate taught loans is for “a scheme whereby, on average, individuals will repay in full”.

It sets out the proposed repayment terms for postgraduate taught loans – interest rate of RPI plus 3 per cent, repayable once earnings are above £21,000, repayable at 9 per cent of salary above that threshold – and asks whether these are right.

The document adds: “An individual who is earning £21,000 or above, and who also has an undergraduate loan, would pay 18 per cent of their salary above the proposed thresholds because the repayment of any outstanding undergraduate loan is 9 per cent and would be paid in parallel to the new postgraduate master’s loan.”

After suggesting that financial barriers to postgraduate taught study are strongest for those under 30, the proposed cut-off point for loans, the consultation asks: “Are the proposed eligibility criteria appropriate or should they be refined?”

The consultation also asks whether, as proposed, “institutional eligibility should be restricted to Hefce-fundable institutions and Alternative Providers who have obtained Degree Awarding Powers”.

On postgraduate research, the consultation says that the government will “review how we can both broaden and strengthen support for postgraduate research students and excellent postgraduate research.”

The consultation offers few details on the proposed loans for PhD and research master’s students. But in a move that could potentially cause controversy, it floats the idea of restricting loans to certain subjects.

The consultation asks: “Should we prioritise specific subjects where the scientific and economic case is strongest, or instead provide broad support to all subjects, even if this means capping the total number of loans or offering them on less generous terms? If we prioritise certain subjects, how should we go about it?”

The consultation closes on 29 May 2015. The government “will issue a response within 12 weeks of the consultation closing date”, the consultation says.

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