Consideration should be given to the introduction of a Ucas-style national application system for taught postgraduate courses at UK universities, a major review of access and funding says.
The report to the Higher Education Funding Council for England also warns that the Westminster government’s proposed loans of up to £10,000 for students on master’s programmes are “highly likely” to counter efforts to widen participation among learners from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Paul Wakeling, senior lecturer in the department of education at the University of York, was commissioned to write the review after the closure of the postgraduate support scheme that saw Hefce distribute £25 million to help to fund students at 40 different institutions between January 2014 and June this year.
Dr Wakeling says that approximately 2,000 postgraduates were supported by the bursaries, salaries and loans offered through the scheme, equivalent to more than 3 per cent of all new UK and European Union taught postgraduate students in England in 2014-15.
This provides evidence of “latent and frustrated demand” for postgraduate study, says Dr Wakeling, with lack of finance being a key obstacle for well-qualified but disadvantaged prospective students.
But he highlights that another barrier to postgraduate access is the lack of a nationwide clearing house for applicants, similar to the role played by Ucas for undergraduates.
A registry of one’s own
Existing commercial websites are not definitive, can be expensive for institutions and do not provide an application service, the report says. Applicants may need to provide the same information in slightly different ways multiple times, and institutions are unaware when an applicant has taken up a place elsewhere.
Dr Wakeling recommends that detailed consideration be given to the creation of a national application system for taught postgraduate study. This would not have to replicate Ucas, recognising the complexity and fragmentation of postgraduate provision, he writes; but it could at least act as a registry that records certain data, such as the acceptance of an offer.
“When you come together with a single platform like Ucas, you have your information in one place,” Dr Wakeling told Times Higher Education. “It’s very clear to people what they do and where they go and I think that benefits everybody, especially students.”
In the report, Dr Wakeling adds that the provision of government loans “will effectively subsidise those who are already able to afford to cover their own costs of postgraduate study”. It could also deter employers and institutions from providing funding for taught postgraduate places, he says.
Given that the loan scheme is “highly likely directly to contradict efforts to widen participation” and that debt aversion may be highest among disadvantaged students, especially after the introduction of higher undergraduate tuition fees, Dr Wakeling says that financial support should instead be targeted at students “on the basis of financial need”, with non-repayable grants or bursaries being the ideal.
Assessment of students’ financial needs should also be centralised on a UK-wide basis, to stop the same judgement being made multiple times by different institutions, the report says.
The new loans are set to be introduced in 2016-17, but Dr Wakeling said that he hoped that the scheme could be adjusted over time to reflect his findings. Until the loans come in, a second phase of the postgraduate support scheme is operating this year that will offer bursaries of £10,000 to 10,000 students.