State not the only player in postgrad access game

Government loans may not be the answer, Hefce director argues. Elizabeth Gibney reports

February 28, 2013

Debate over how to ensure fair access to postgraduate education should consider the role of universities and employers, an associate director of the Higher Education Funding Council for England has suggested.

Chris Millward told a conference in London last week that although it was legitimate to ask how the government might establish a comprehensive finance scheme for postgraduates, the state was just one of a number of players in a “complicated, diverse landscape”.

There had not been a lot of discussion about how universities could work with students and employers to develop better finance to deal with access questions, he told Postgraduate Learning 2013: Enhancing Inclusion, Quality and Employability, held on 21 February.

“One question for me is how could government and Hefce funding help to stimulate this? How might we be able to match [universities’] own resources to deal with some of these issues, so we don’t necessarily need to rely on…government loans and lending?” Mr Millward said.

The Higher Education Commission, the National Union of Students and the Sutton Trust have been among those to call for some kind of targeted state-backed loan scheme for postgraduate education. But Mr Millward, who leads Hefce’s policy and funding approaches in this area, said that despite a “certain tone that loans must be the answer”, more evidence was needed.

“I haven’t seen much evidence as to whether there actually would be an appetite for loans,” he said, particularly among the high proportion of mature students on taught postgraduate courses.

He said that if the government were to introduce a comprehensive finance scheme, it would likely do so via regulation, which might not have positive consequences. As with undergraduate reforms, he added, such a scheme might herald a reduction in the Hefce teaching grant.

Mr Millward said that Hefce would gather more evidence on the issue, including reporting in the spring on patterns of progression to postgraduate education.

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