Postgraduates 'priced out of the market' by sharp fee increases

Rising costs may herald a decline in uptake of higher degrees by home students. John Morgan reports

July 21, 2011

Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty
Whither the next generation? Fee rises may place a cap on the new scholarly intake and damage the academy, critics warn

Universities are raising their fees for home and European Union postgraduate students sharply, a survey suggests, prompting warnings about access to academia and other professions.

The National Survey of UK Tuition Fees, for the coming 2011-12 academic year, indicates that rises in taught postgraduate fees for home and EU students outstrip increases for non-EU postgraduates and undergraduates.

Based on data gathered from 147 UK higher education institutions, the fees survey shows that taught home/EU postgraduate fees range from £3,400 to £31,738.

Using the survey's data, Times Higher Education calculated the average home/EU postgraduate fee at those institutions as £6,184 (taking a median fee where an institution has a range of charges). That is an increase of 24 per cent from the £4,989 average at those same institutions in 2010-11.

Malcolm McVicar, vice-chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire, said: "Postgraduates can't access fees loans or maintenance loans and there is the real danger that if fees go up significantly, British postgraduates will be priced out of the market."

The government's postgraduate review, reconvened earlier this year and led by Sir Adrian Smith, is under pressure to provide solutions to the student-support problems.

The survey suggests that average fees for non-EU postgraduates in classroom-based subjects increased from £10,337 to £11,346 (a 10 per cent rise) and in lab-based subjects from £12,100 to £13,109 (an 8 per cent rise).

For non-EU undergraduates, fees in classroom-based subjects increased from £10,120 to £10,591 (a 5 per cent rise) and in lab-based subjects from £11,287 to £11,791 (a 4 per cent rise).

The survey has appeared annually since 2002 and was formerly carried out by the former London School of Economics academic Mike Reddin.

He died in April, part way through this year's survey, which was completed by his partner, Christine Penny, and Bernard Kingston, founder of The Complete University Guide.

The highest fee for home/EU postgraduates is at the University of Oxford, where fees range from £5,970 to £31,738 (including college fees), up from between £5,502 and £29,186 the previous year.

The most expensive postgraduate course at Oxford is the MSc in financial economics, where tuition alone costs £29,500.

An Oxford spokeswoman attributed the rise to the discontinuation of Research Councils UK funding for graduate skills training, while some programmes had also "seen a substantial fall in funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (particularly taught postgraduate courses)".

Hefce, which the government says has provided postgraduate teaching funding of about £100 million for 2011-12, has outlined plans to provide a reduced postgraduate teaching grant in clinical and lab-based subjects only from 2012-13.

At the University of Sheffield, the lowest home postgraduate fee increased from £3,460 to £4,200 for 2011-12 - a 21 per cent increase.

The university took the decision "based on our analysis of fees for comparable courses at other research-intensive institutions in the UK", a Sheffield spokeswoman said.

Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said it was "inevitable that fees would go up to avoid an anomaly with regard to the new undergraduate regime".

He noted that the academic profession relies on students progressing to doctorates.

"The health of the sector - but also of the economy and society more generally - depends on the health of postgraduate education."

Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students, said: "A rise in fees for postgraduate courses, following that for undergraduates, has been predicted, but the government has blithely ignored this when pushing for higher undergraduate fees.

"The inevitable decline in access to postgraduate education will have a knock-on impact on access to professions, many of which require postgraduate qualifications, and will also limit those moving on to the research side of universities."

Dr McVicar said that Uclan's current basic postgraduate fee was £4,000 (the institution has about 200 such courses) and that one budget projection would increase this figure to £6,000 in 2012-13, although this had yet to be decided.

He said the Smith review "has to address the question of how to support students...I think the labour market increasingly will demand people with postgraduate qualifications. Certainly in academic life there is a question about how we get the next generation."

Paul Curran, vice-chancellor of City University London, a major provider of postgraduate courses, said postgraduate fee rises may be more likely "at the cheaper end of the market", and that part-time students and financial support from employers may become more prevalent.

He also saw the potential for "strong international promotion of master's programmes...if there is a downturn in the UK/EU market, simply because (such) courses are so important for UK higher education".

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