Study now, pay later plan will ensure a rich return

August 12, 2005

Deferred fees and improved student support will help to attract graduates into research, argues Teresa Rees

One of the many heated debates surrounding the introduction of undergraduate fees was their potential impact on postgraduates. The question most often raised was would they deter indebted graduates from further study? What was rarely considered was whether they would in fact benefit postgraduates by leading to a better-funded system, a form of postgraduate dividend.

With the National Postgraduate Committee holding its annual conference in Strathclyde this week, now is a good time to reconsider these questions.

That there was popular aversion to charging fees across the UK is not in doubt. In Wales, two motions were passed in the National Assembly, one against variable fees "in principle", the other "instructing" the Assembly not to introduce top-ups. The latter was passed by a margin of one vote - two days before an independent review on university funding and student support commissioned by the Assembly's Education and Lifelong Learning Minister was due to report. As I chaired this review, I was all too aware of the intensity of feeling.

The furore has obscured the nature of the fee regimes introduced across the UK and their impact on both undergraduates and postgraduates. All full-time undergraduate fees are now deferred. They will be paid after students have graduated and only by those who have reached a "graduate premium" - a certain salary level.

Deferring fees ensures that the investment students are being asked to make in their education is risk free. They repay their fees only when and if they can afford to and at a level they can afford. The brouhaha over fees has diverted attention from the real issue: student support. Whether or not undergraduates achieve the graduate premium, they have to live while they study, but the debts they accrue make postgraduate study difficult. The matter is further complicated by the variation in student support across the UK. In England, while there appears to be no fees market, there is a bewildering one in bursaries and scholarships, along with added enticements such as laptops and bicycles.

In Wales, the Assembly has agreed to our recommendations for deferred flexible fees and a means-tested national bursary scheme, open to all UK students who choose to study in Wales. So no need for competitive marketing schemes. Instead, Welsh fee income is top sliced and the bursary goes directly to students, who decide what they want to study and where, unimpeded by a confusion of bargain offers. Universities and indeed the Assembly can choose to top up the scheme to support excellence, new subjects, shortage areas or Welsh language provision.

Proper maintenance support for undergraduates is essential, not least to ensure that poor students are not deterred from postgraduate study. The reintroduction of grants in Wales in 2001 and now in England helps, but more needs to be invested in student support, especially for part-time undergraduates.

Equally, the academic career structure has not been an inviting prospect for those choosing to pursue postgraduate work. But this is where we might see the impact of the postgraduate dividend. The increase in stipends from the research councils for postgraduates is clearly welcome. But investment in the sector through fee income and through full economic costing for research, which includes more resources for training and staff development, should enable universities to provide a better environment for postgraduates.

For those tempted to stay on, the new national pay framework should offer better conditions, as well as a more transparent pay structure that will (purportedly) address the issue of equal pay. The framework covers hourly paid staff, many of whom are postgraduates working as tutors or demonstrators. The fixed-term workers directive should ensure a better career structure for researchers, but there are fears about how this will be managed. The emphasis in the research assessment exercise guidelines on research culture should focus resources on support and infrastructure.

In short, while the rumblings about variable fees for undergraduates may have missed the point, the issues of deferral and maintenance, the outcome, combined with the additional investment in the sector, should facilitate a better research environment that will benefit the postgraduate.

Teresa Rees is pro vice-chancellor of Cardiff University and president of the National Postgraduate Committee. She chaired the Rees review on fees in Wales - Fair and Flexible Funding: A Welsh Model to Promote Quality and Access in Higher Education ,

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