Rising master’s fees ‘could scupper progress on access’

Postgraduate loans appeared to narrow gap between working class students and others but Sutton Trust warns that increased costs could wipe out this progress   

June 24, 2021
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Gains made in access to postgraduate study for students from poorer backgrounds in the UK in the past decade through the introduction of state loans could be wiped out by rapidly rising fees, a new report warns.

According to the research from the Sutton Trust, the share of English graduates from working-class backgrounds who went on to taught postgraduate courses climbed from 6 per cent in 2013-14 to 12.9 per cent in 2017-18.

Although the share of graduates from managerial and professional family backgrounds also rose over the period, from 8.6 per cent to 14.2 per cent, the gap in postgraduate entry rates between these two groups narrowed.

The change coincided with the Westminster government’s introduction of loans to cover fees and living costs for postgraduates in England; next year students will be able to borrow up to £11,600 as part of the scheme. Devolved administrations have introduced similar systems.

However, the report, published on 24 June, warns that master’s fees are rising so quickly, particularly at the most selective universities, that the loan is struggling to keep pace, especially given that it is also supposed to cover living costs.

Using data from the Complete University Guide’s Reddin survey of fees, the report says that average tuition charges for a classroom-based taught postgraduate programme at a Russell Group institution doubled between 2011 to 2020. They are now £11,000 on average at Golden Triangle universities from the group (defined as those in London, Oxford and Cambridge) and almost £9,000 elsewhere.

It adds that in 2006-07, for classroom-based master’s courses, “the difference between the most expensive group of institutions (in the Golden Triangle) and the least costly (interestingly, these were other Russell Group universities) was just £1,404.

“But in 2020-21, the difference between the most and the least expensive group of institutions, this time between Golden Triangle universities and post-1992 institutions, was 2.5 times higher: £3,532.

“If we take living costs into account, no postgraduate loan regime in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland would allow students to cover the cost of their postgraduate education full-time without having to get resources from elsewhere.”

The trust said in a statement accompanying the report that it was calling for further reforms to the loans system to remove such financial barriers, with funding made available to “better reflect the full costs of postgraduate study, with grants available for students from lower-income backgrounds”.

The report also recommends that universities should extend their work on access and participation for undergraduates to postgraduate level.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chair of the Sutton Trust, said that the role of postgraduate study in promoting social mobility was increasing because of the general growth in numbers taking higher-level courses.

“The introduction of loans in 2015 was a welcome reform and has done much to improve access in the past few years,” he said. “But the rising cost of courses at the most prestigious institutions is outpacing the loans available for young people, who also need to cover their living costs.” 


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