‘Homegrown’ postgraduate student crisis wake-up call

The British government has woken up to what some universities are calling a ‘postgraduate crisis’ with a pledge of £75 million (US$120 million) to fund a string of initiatives aimed at reversing falling demand for masters courses among UK students.

However, this doesn’t mean that a postgraduate loans system is about to be introduced for home and European Union students – despite calls for such a move from a number of higher education and student leaders.

The government and higher education funding chiefs in England say they want to see robust evidence that such a loans system is either desired or necessary before deciding how to invest £50 million to support postgraduates in 2015.

To get things moving the Higher Education Funding Council for England, or HEFCE, is making £25 million available for a pilot project competitive bidding initiative to test different ways of stimulating the domestic taught postgraduate market. The pilot projects will begin in the new year.

British postgraduates outnumbered

Postgraduate education has grown over the last decade in the UK, but has been fuelled by a 90% increase in the number of non-EU international students – which obscured a 12% fall in homegrown postgraduate students over the past three years.

The greatest fall has been among mature students and those studying part-time on taught programmes. Postgraduate research numbers have held steady.

But as a masters degree is often the route to a doctoral degree, HEFCE’s latest overview of postgraduate education in England and Northern Ireland identifies that some universities believe there is a ‘broken bridge’ to research degrees that needs fixing.

Britons are now outnumbered 4:3 on UK postgraduate courses by international students who pay higher fees, as University World News highlighted earlier this month, quoting a new study by the 1994 Group.

The group’s report led to front-page headlines in The Independent, voicing concern that home take-up could plunge even further in 2015-16 “when students saddled with debts from £9,000-a-year degree courses decide they cannot afford to take-up further study”.

As it turned out the report was one of the last acts by the 1994 Group of smaller UK research universities before its disbandment was announced last week.

The group’s fears echoed those of the National Union of Students, or NUS, which last year complained that postgraduate students were being neglected by government.

The 1994 Group’s report, Increasing Postgraduate Opportunities: Proposals for funding, suggests an income-contingent loan system for full-time taught postgraduates to address what it describes as “a potential crisis for postgraduate education in the UK”.

The group says loans up to £10,000 should be provided for graduates with a first or upper second class honours degree, repayable at 9% on earnings over £15,000 a year. They say the proposal could be fully funded by redirecting money from existing pots, such as support for Professional and Career Development Loans run by several banks and the undergraduate National Scholarship Programme, which is being phased-out.

The NUS in its report, Steps Toward a Fairer System of Postgraduate Funding in England, published a year ago, emphasised the value of postgraduate study to the economy and warned: “Fee increases at undergraduate level have exacerbated an already-existing problem of severe funding shortages at postgraduate level.”

Rachel Wenstone, NUS vice president (higher education), said: “We would like to see a three-way system of income-contingent loans, to take account of the different motivations and requirements at postgraduate level, which could be generated by government in partnership with employers and professional bodies.”

Their proposals included a loan system for postgraduates of at least £6,000, with a repayment income threshold of £15,000 and an interest rate similar to the progressive rate of undergraduate loans in England. Importantly, the NUS stressed that both full- and part-time masters study should be supported.

The NUS also wants the HEFCE block grant – for teaching postgraduates – protected and a curb on the rise in tuition fees in the “currently unregulated market” for taught postgraduate degrees.

The representative body Universities UK is watching the impact of current funding policy on postgraduate provision closely, and says the causes of decline in recruitment need to be analysed in detail to influence any future policy interventions.

More public funding support may be required in future, but this should be targeted to where it will have the greatest economic impact, they said.

‘Loans not the complete answer'

HEFCE says that the loan models being recommended may not be the complete answer.

Chris Millward, HEFCE’s associate director responsible for postgraduate education and strategically important and vulnerable subjects, said: “We need more robust evidence to inform policy.”

The funding council is about to announce the successful bids sharing the £25 million for the 18-month pilot projects to stimulate postgraduate demand. Finance is one proposal, but other options include better advice, guidance and support to students considering postgraduate study.

“We are also trying to get a better understanding of the likely impact on postgraduate participation when the first cohort of students paying the higher fees graduate from their bachelor degrees in 2015,” Millward told University World News.

“Postgraduates were not seriously covered in the Browne Review (which led to the introduction of tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year at English universities for undergraduates) and we need to make up lost ground.”

In the short-term, the government has asked HEFCE to continue supporting postgraduate education and the funding council has agreed to give taught postgraduate courses an extra £35 million this year while also providing an extra £35 million to research postgraduate programmes.

No need to raise postgraduate fees

“Part of the reason for this extra funding is to minimise the need for an increase in postgraduate fees,” said Millward.

“Universities may legitimately raise fees due to cost and market imperatives, but if we’re sustaining the HEFCE grant for taught postgraduates at the 2011-12 level, then changes in government funding should not be used as a reason to raise postgraduate fees.”

Postgraduate fees are not regulated and a Universities UK survey showed that they had risen by 10% this year, said Millward. “There may be legitimate issues connected with increases in costs, but there is no reason why postgraduate fees should rise to £9,000 just because undergraduate fees have.

“They are part of a completely different funding settlement. Undergraduate courses are free at the point of entry, with a loan to cover the fee. If postgraduate fees do increase, it will be quite hard to justify additional taught postgraduate funding that HEFCE has provided.”

According to the Times Higher Education International and Postgraduate Students Fees Survey, 2013, full-time postgraduate taught course fees average just under £6,000 a year for home and EU students this year – 30% lower than undergraduate degrees cost at an English university.

The funding council is carrying out its first comprehensive review of taught postgraduate fees, which it will publish in the spring of 2014. While Millward stressed it was not HEFCE’s job to regulate postgraduate fees, he said: “We have signalled to the universities that we are looking very carefully at what fees are being charged.”

Pilots will shape long-term thinking

The pilot projects being funded by HEFCE will run from January 2014 to July 2015, and will help shape thinking about long-term activity and funding to support postgraduate education from 2015-16, when £50 million currently supporting the undergraduate National Scholarship Programme is redirected to support postgraduate students from disadvantaged backgrounds, explained Millward.

HEFCE and the Economic and Social Research Council, or ESRC, have appointed Dr Paul Wakeling, an educational sociologist from York University, to help steer the project. There are two broad goals:
  • • Tackling any barriers to under-represented groups currently in postgraduate education.
  • • Looking harder at the contribution postgraduate taught education makes to skills that support economic growth and the government’s industrial strategy.
“We will be using the results from the portfolio of pilot projects to decide how to invest the £50 million in 2015-16,” said Millward.

“I must stress that it is not just about finance or bursaries. We want to find the most relevant support mechanisms to encourage more home postgraduates and part of the solution is to work with institutions and employers to make sure it succeeds.”

So what of the 1994 Group’s proposals?

In the foreword to the new 1994 Group report, Universities and Science Minister David Willetts expressed delight at the “higher than anticipated demand from the sector” in the recent £25 million round of bids for the pilot projects.

He emphasised that overall £75 millon was being invested to help universities and colleges attract and support less-advantaged students into postgraduate education.

In particular, the minister welcomed the 1994 Group’s attempt to put forward possible solutions for the future financing of postgraduate education.

But he went on to say that the postgraduate market had grown without government intervention and regulation: “It therefore cannot be for the public purse alone to tackle the issues of access, participation and finance.”

Millward agreed that the 1994 Group had provided “a good analysis of the finance options”, but said it didn’t talk enough about the value of taught postgraduate education – both to the individual and wider public.

“I am not convinced that a loan model focused on full time students is actually the solution in such a diverse space. The idea of the £10,000 loan doesn’t address the key area of part-time students, who make up half of postgraduate students,” Millward told University World News.

“Part time undergraduate numbers are declining despite the introduction of a loans scheme; but it is a variable experience, and the Open University is working effectively with the loans scheme [for part-time undergraduates] because they are very competitive on price and have worked very hard to understand their constituency.”

“So while loans for postgraduates are a possibility, we need to explore all the options.”

International students

With nearly 150,000 UK-taught postgraduate students in 2011-12, Millward said he was surprised at some of the media coverage of the issue, which implied that British universities had too many international students.

“I don’t think having lots of international students is a bad thing. You have got to see the arrival of some of the most educated and talented people in the world in this country as a good thing.

“They want to study here, but one of the important reasons why we think it is worth spending time and investing in the domestic postgraduate market is that if you are going to recruit international students you need a good mixed economy of home and overseas students. Overseas students don’t generally tend to want to study just with other overseas students. They want to study with home students as well.”

Millward dismissed any similarity between having more foreign postgraduates than English students at British universities with the Premier football league appearing to have more foreign star players than home grown talent, and this having a negative impact on the national squad.

“We’re not spending all our time educating overseas students. We are spending time educating overseas students, European students and home students. If you look at the data over the last decade, yes there has been significant growth in overseas students, but there has also been significant growth in home student numbers.

“We want to continue that trend by making postgraduate taught and research attractive to both home and overseas students.”

* Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist and public relations consultant who regularly blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations & Information Officers’ association, EUPRIO, and on his http://delacourcommunications.com website.

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