Postgraduates: A higher degree of postgraduate debt

Universities are worried that the increased cost of studying for a Masters or a PhD could erode research
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The Independent Online
ONLY A lucky minority of postgraduate students receive a grant for their studies. For the rest, doing a higher degree means borrowing, working and studying part-time, or falling back on savings.

Some postgraduates, for example Masters students in certain areas of engineering, technology and finance, can command high salaries when they start work. For PhD students and Masters students in less vocational subjects, postgraduate study means paying back borrowed money over several years.

The financial strain is made worse by the growing burden of undergraduate debt. According to student unions, it is not uncommon to find undergraduates who finish their courses owing pounds 10,000 or more to the banks, the student loan company and parents.

From this autumn, debt levels will increase still further as a result of the Government's plans for undergraduate tuition fees. Postgraduate representatives are worried that, in just over three years' time, fewer people will be able to afford to take a higher degree. Doctoral students, who take three or four years to complete their degrees, are likely to be the worst hit.

According to Martin Gough, general secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee, the extra debt from tuition fees might be enough to tip the balance against staying on at university. The worst affected, he says, are "those students who could just about finance it themselves, and now cannot"

The NPC expects the problem to manifest itself in two ways. Demand for postgraduate places will fall, and a greater number of students will drop out of higher degrees as their finances become too stretched.

Completion rates are already a concern at postgraduate level, with students citing financial problems as one of the main reasons for not finishing their degrees. Martin Gough says: "Enrolment may not be as affected by debt as completion,"

PhD students in particular may be forced to drop their studies: there is no guarantee of work, let alone highly-paid work, at the end of a doctorate.

The NPC believes that, to safeguard university research, postgraduates will need compensating for higher debts. Constraints on public finances, and the fact that only one in four full-time postgraduates receives a state studentship, means that larger grants for postgraduate students are not a realistic solution.

Instead, the NPC suggests a "golden hello" for postgraduates. Funded either by the Government, universities or employers, this would be a one- off "extra financial incentive".

Businesses are already offering financial assistance to selected postgraduate students on an informal basis. Top flight graduates who want to take a Masters degree are negotiating sponsorship individually for funding with employers such as banks, finance houses and oil companies.

A golden hello, though, is not the only way to bridge the funding gap. One measure that could be introduced at relatively low cost is to extend the student loan scheme to postgraduates.

Currently, only students taking the postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE) are eligible. Those taking vocational courses can apply for a deferred- interest, Government-backed career development loan, but those following the academic path are eligible only for bank loans at commercial rates. And unlike a student loan, there is no guarantee that a bank will agree to advance funds. Students whose degrees lead to lucrative job offers stand the best chance of success.

Some universities are taking their own measures to ensure that demand for postgraduate places is not unduly affected by students' additional debt. Edinburgh is actively raising money to fund its own scholarships. Initially, the university will offer 25 access bursaries and 25 based on merit to undergraduates. According to a university spokeswoman, this will be extended to cover postgraduates in due course.

Other institutions have initiatives that will also go some way to relieve the burden. Traditionally, fees for postgraduate courses are payable in full at enrolment. However, a number of universities, especially among the former polytechnics, charge fees in instalments. This practice is likely to spread.

Universities are also helping postgraduates fund their studies by offering them paid teaching, or even clerical work.

Warwick University was one of the pioneers of postgraduate teaching assistantships in the UK. Sixty postgraduate students are on contracts, under which they are paid a salary and have their postgraduate fees waived in return for a set amount of undergraduate teaching.

According to Michael Shattock, university registrar, the scheme has stabilised postgraduate numbers.

A number of universities, including Coventry and Cardiff, operate on- campus employment services. Postgraduates can register for part-time work in and around the university; pay and conditions are usually better than for casual work off campus.

At Warwick, there is a specific postgraduate employment register, with students taking on clerical jobs such as typing. The university points out that it helps postgraduates to study, and saves on agency bills for temporary staff.

Provision, however, is patchy: not all universities believe there will be a fall in demand for courses. Instead, there could be a switch towards more vocational programmes, where job prospects are best, and an increase in part-time study. Students might also choose to study later, after a few years' employment, perhaps taking a postgraduate degree with their employers' support.

Another outcome could be a concentration of postgraduate students in a smaller number of leading research universities. Overall postgraduate numbers might fall, but universities that offer courses with good employment records will maintain numbers at the expense of rival institutions.

At Warwick, Mr Shattock points out that numbers are holding up for four- year courses in physics and engineering, despite the burden of an extra year of fees.

Students are concluding that they can justify the extra expense. Warwick has a large proportion of vocationally-oriented postgraduate programmes, and does not expect to see much if any fall in demand.

"There might well, nationally, be fewer people staying on to do postgraduate work," he says. "What it might mean is that students will be concentrated in a smaller number of institutions."