The introduction of undergraduate tuition funding in England has been a great force for social mobility, allowing those who previously could not afford to go to university the opportunity. But, while this has been hailed a success, our best and brightest are unfortunately held back by governmental funding for postgraduate study.
Unlike undergraduate funding, which provides students with a tuition and maintenance grant, master’s funding allows for students to borrow up to £10,609, which is meant to help with the aforementioned costs. But fees for master’s degrees are not capped, as their undergraduate counterparts are, resulting in the average fee being about £11,000, as stated by Ucas. As a result, there is a clear barrier to affordability, which consequently prices out those who are economically disadvantaged but wish to continue their education.
While £11,000 is the average, meaning that there are more affordable degrees, these are often for specific courses and/or universities that do not appear at the higher end of the league tables. This means that the choice of institution may be limited based on cost.
“It seems like a catch-22 where more and more higher-level jobs require a master’s, yet government grants and loans severely limit your ability to do most courses (except possibly those at your current university),” says Róisín Ní Chionna, a third-year politics and international relations student at the University of Sussex. “I would love to do a master’s because I want to keep studying and have just got into the momentum of academic study. I feel like I really would benefit from one, both intellectually and in my future career, but I now find myself looking (and excluding) on the basis of fees rather than the content of the course,” she adds.
Taking the example of the London School of Economics and Political Science, a quick search shows that its postgraduate degrees are on the higher end of the price spectrum, costing more than twice the Ucas average. While I believe that it could justify this amount because it is one of the best universities in the country, if not the world, this clearly creates a situation where those who have money can attend, and those who don’t cannot.
The example of LSE also applies to other high-ranked institutions, and it is important to emphasise that the university’s location does not alter the loan that students can receive, as it does for undergraduate study.
This is not to say that students should not bear responsibility for their educational choices. After all, I stated at the start of this piece that undergraduate tuition fees have been a great force for social mobility. The issue, however, is that there is no fee cap on postgraduate degrees, which means that we have a postgraduate system that focuses more on a student’s ability to fund their degree than its educational merit.
I have focused thus far on tuition costs, and how this alone has priced out many gifted students who are eager to continue their studies. But another issue is the living costs associated with studying. Taking the most disadvantaged situation at undergraduate level, an individual in 2018/19 will receive approximately £9,250 for tuition, £8,430 (outside London) or £11,002 (inside London) with some form of bursary that varies depending on the university.
Others may have to work to subsidise their living costs but regardless, there is assistance for students to put their education first, rather than prioritising work to survive while studying. This funding deficit created by the master’s loan creates a paradox for students who must choose either a university that is affordable but not academically fulfilling, or one that satisfies them academically but will result in the need to find employment to get by. It should not be the case that we have a system in which students want to study at the top universities but are limited because they do not have the financial means to support themselves.
“I’m currently doing a postgraduate degree and I definitely struggle with the financial burden,”says University of Sussex master’s student Rosie Toner. “The government loan is so much less [than at undergraduate level], I could only afford to do it because of the scholarship programme Sussex offers. This is rough because I feel postgraduate degrees are necessary in order to stand out as most people in the job market have an undergraduate degree and now it’s simply not enough.”
Universities such as my own (the University of Sussex) offer fantastic scholarships for their own graduates and to high-achieving students, which allows them to cater to those students who might otherwise be unable to continue studying.
A reduction of up to £3,000 to tuition fees forms the foundation needed to cover living expenses. While for some this money may not be a game changer, for those who are torn about where to study after their undergraduate degree, this can make a considerable impact because it makes postgraduate study obtainable, rather than an impossible hurdle to jump.
Top universities provide more than just academic excellence; they provide the capacity to network with other gifted students. By holding back the economically disadvantaged from joining these universities, the opportunities created by these networks become unobtainable, therefore reinforcing the barriers that have been broken through the merits of undergraduate funding. While undergraduate funding initially allows anyone to climb the meritocratic ladder, it is unfortunate that to climb to the top, the rungs of the ladder are removed unless you’re able to pay for them.
I would like to add that although I have included only two students’ responses in this piece, during my research I found a common theme around underfunding and the financial burden for all students, not just postgraduates.