A government-backed student loan scheme is needed to stop a “grossly unfair” system in which access to taught postgraduate education is based on wealth, the National Union of Students has said.
In plans published on 22 November, the union calls for a scheme in which up to £6,000 a year would be available to postgraduate students through the Student Loan Company, repayable based on income.
The union claims that with a repayment earnings threshold of £15,000 the scheme would be cost-neutral to the government, given the increased average wage for master’s graduates.
Rachel Wenstone, vice-president for higher education at the NUS, said that even before the potential effects of increased undergraduate fees were taken into account it was abhorrent that people should be denied postgraduate education on account of their inability to pay up front.
“Apart from the fact that it’s logical to have more people in postgraduate study as it has a stimulating effect on the economy…at the moment there’s a barrier that’s immoral and that can’t be fixed through commercial loans at 9.9 per cent,” she said.
The NUS proposes three separate funding schemes to recognise the diversity of postgraduate education.
The first, managed in collaboration with professional bodies, would work to ensure greater diversity in the professions by providing loans to students who had received maintenance grants as undergraduates.
The second scheme would create joint employer- and government-backed loans for those undertaking part-time study alongside work, while a third would provide a discrete number of loans for the remaining majority of traditional taught postgraduate courses.
All three schemes would initially be focused on students achieving at least an upper-second-class degree or equivalent. Only universities that agree to cap their fees - at £6,000 or another suitable limit - would be eligible to take part, thus limiting the risk of fee inflation, said Ms Wenstone.
Although a £6,000 loan would be unlikely to cover a student’s full costs, and institutions charging higher fees may opt out, overall the schemes would increase access while being cost-neutral, she added.
In its report on postgraduate education published last month, the Higher Education Commission argued that there was a “strong case” for a limited state-backed student-loan scheme to be introduced for master’s degree students.
Geoff Whitty, a member of the HEC and former director of the Institute of Education, welcomed the NUS proposal and its recognition of the diversity of postgraduate provision. “We believe the government should immediately establish a cross-party review to resolve the postgraduate funding issue before it is too late,” he said.
Stephen Lee, professor of voluntary sector management at Cass Business School and chief executive of the thinktank Centre Forum, said he was “very supportive” of the proposals, which are similar to plans put forward last year by the organisation’s former chief economist Tim Leunig.
Growing agreement across the sector meant there was a “very strong chance” that the government would act, he added.
“Given that [both the NUS and Centre Forum’s proposals] are entirely tax-neutral and in fact deliver tax benefits, it’s really difficult to see why the government would not wish to push forward with this,” he said.