Reforms may make master's degrees unviable

Debts of £65,000 seen as 'huge disincentive' to further study in Stem subjects. Paul Jump writes

February 23, 2012

There is a danger that higher education reforms could render the provision of postgraduate master's degrees "unviable", the University of Oxford has cautioned.

The warning came in Oxford's written submission to an inquiry into higher education in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects being conducted by a subcommittee of the Lords Science and Technology Committee.

According to Oxford, any reduction of the teaching grant for stand-alone master's courses by the Higher Education Funding Council for England could be harmful.

It would mean that students of subjects in which four-year integrated master's degrees are not the norm at undergraduate level could struggle to afford to obtain a master's degree - creating a "significant access issue", the university says.

Hefce is cutting funding for taught postgraduate courses in the same way as for undergraduate courses. But earlier this month, it announced extra funding for postgraduate taught courses in higher-cost subjects.

Oxford also fears that increased tuition fees could dissuade some undergraduates, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, from pursuing even integrated master's degrees because of the additional year's fees and living expenses.

The concern is echoed in a submission by the UK Deans of Science. It says that master's degrees are necessary to "educate students to international graduate levels", but they had received "no thought" in the deliberations surrounding the higher education reforms.

Noting that integrated master's students could graduate with debts of more than £65,000, the deans warn that "this is bound to act as a huge disincentive to continue into a doctorate and postdoctoral work".

"We expect that when this is finally recognised by the government in the period around 2014-16 it will be panicked into measures to deal with the crisis," the deans add.

The 1994 Group's submission advocates a government-backed loan scheme open to "at least some" groups of postgraduates.

In a follow-up report, The Postgraduate Crisis, released today, the 1994 Group says the "current relationships between the banking sector, government and society" also make it an ideal time for the government to lobby banks to improve the terms for personal and career-development loans, for which the current interest rate after graduation is nearly 10 per cent.

The Russell Group submission says additional public funds to support postgraduates might be difficult to find. But it suggests that the government could examine the "alternative finance options", many involving private finance and banks, that were proposed for undergraduates during the Browne Review.

But the Million+ group of post-1992 universities notes the risk that banks will "cherry-pick the postgraduate students, courses and universities which they regard as 'winners'".

"It is crucial that any loan scheme is comprehensive and is available to all postgraduate students," it says.

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