Learning the hard way

Postgraduate Courses: Philip Schofield investigates the financial options for students who continue into postgraduate study
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The Independent Online
ONLY 19 per cent of first-degree students stay out of debt while at university, according to a survey by Barclays Bank. And by graduation, the average debt is pounds 2,293. Consequently, those who go on to full-time postgraduate academic study or training can face real difficulties.

Postgraduate places, unlike those for first degrees, do not carry mandatory grants. The only exception is for postgraduate teacher training. A number of organisations award grants, and many courses and research places carry awards under a quota scheme. However, the number of places exceeds the number of awards and competition for funding is intense. It is easier to get funding for a vocational than a non-vocational subject. But some courses leading to a vocational qualification, such as a Master's in business administration, get no public funds.

Margaret Dane, president of the Association of Graduate Careers Services and director of the careers service at Heriot-Watt University, says many would-be postgraduate students cannot continue their studies without funding. She says graduates have two approaches to their burden of debt. "Some people take a year off to earn some money to pay off their debt and get a bit of money towards their postgraduate course. Others say, 'I'm so far in debt a little more won't make much difference.' "

A year taken off to work and earn money can make sense, especially in terms of future job prospects. Most employers of graduates and postgraduates now look for work experience. An Institute of Employment studyfound: "Outside the HE [higher education] sector and research-based organisations, there is little specific demand for postgraduates, especially Ph Ds. In industry and commerce, the majority of postgraduates are recruited as part of companies' mainstream graduate recruitment programmes, where personal characteristics and evidence of relevant work experience are important selection criteria. The exception is when professional entry qualifications, obtained through postgraduate study, are called for (eg law)."

But a year off will not suit everyone. Many Ph D students want to get on with their research. Those studying for a vocational qualification or Master's degree also want to qualify as soon as possible. Those most likely to benefit from a year off are those who want to take a non-vocational Master's course or those who have yet to choose a Ph D research topic.

Most postgraduate funding is provided, depending on the course subject, by one of six research councils. A shrinking number of discretionary awards are also made by local education authorities. Postgraduate awards depend on several factors - the nature of the course, the class of degree earned by the prospective student, the candidate's reasons for doing the course, and where the candidate lives. Most grants are either in the form of studentships, which are awarded for Master's or Ph D courses, or bursaries for courses leading to vocational diplomas and certificates.

Those wanting a Ph D studentship usually need at least a 2.1 first degree, while Master's courses require a 2.2. However, a lower-class degree supplemented by other qualifications or relevant experience is sometimes accepted for an award.

Studentships are generally more generous than those made for first degrees and do not depend on parental income. There are also extra allowances for dependents, as well as for registered disabled students, older students who have worked for two years in "responsible" employment (not degree course work placements or vacation jobs), and for travelling expenses. Many science postgraduates earn fees supervising undergraduate lab work for a few hours a week and by conducting demonstrations and tutorials. However, other disciplines lack these opportunities, and Ph D students cannot supplement their grants by vacation work because they study at least 44 weeks a year.

Unlike studentships, bursaries for postgraduate diplomas and certificates have the same conditions as first degrees. So, unless students are over 25 and have supported themselves for at least three years, or been married for at least two years, the grant they get will still depend on their parents' income.

What happens if no award is forthcoming? Some higher education institutions and their departments have limited funds to help students in this situation. Some charities also help students with grants or loans, although the sums are usually small and designed to cover such items as books or equipment.

Some training enterprise councils and local enterprise companies provide training allowances to unemployed people for specific vocational courses leading to Master's degrees or postgraduate certificates or diplomas. Each TEC or LEC has its own policy, determined by the funds available and by skill shortages in its area.

Many students borrow to finance their courses. The career development loans scheme, run in conjunction with Barclays, the Co-operative and Clydesdale banks, and the Royal Bank of Scotland, lets students borrow up to 80 per cent of their fees as well as money for books, materials and living costs away from home. These loans are available for vocational courses lasting up to one year.

The Association of MBAs offers loans for MBA students through Barclays or the NatWest. Failing this, students can try their own bank managers. Bank managers' responses differ, and much depends on how individuals have run their accounts in the past and whether the qualification will improve the student's career prospects.

Those unable to fund a full-time course should consider part-time study or distance learning. However, this is a tough option and difficult without the employer's support. One thing a postgraduate course is likely to teach a student is financial management.

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