Postgraduate studies risk becoming the preserve of the wealthy after a major slump in the number of students opting for the courses.
Latest figures, obtained through a Parliamentary question, show an 8.5 per cent drop in take up of the courses between 2010/11 and 2011/12.
The number of UK graduates opting to go on to further study fell from 171,210 to 156,600. The decline was most marked in the south-west where numbers fell by 20 per cent. In the north-west they fell by around 4,000 (or 16 per cent). Fees for undergraduate courses rose to as much as £9,000 a year last September.
The figures, given by Universities Minister David Willetts, prompted a warning that Britain could be at risk of failing to compete on the economic world stage.
Gareth Thomas, a Labour MP and a former higher education spokesman for the party, said: “The British economy needs its postgraduates more now than at any time before.
“More and more of Britain’s future jobs are going to depend on cutting-edge research, imaginative new technologies and knowledge-based innovation. The drop in postgraduate numbers is a further sign of the crisis in higher education funding.”
Mr Willetts revealed he had asked the Higher Education Funding Council for England to undertake a review of the impact the Government’s reforms had had on postgraduate education.
The figures follow a report by the Higher Education Commission showing the UK is already one of only three countries in Europe – the others are Andorra and Kazakhstan – where fewer than 10 per cent of students go on to postgraduate studies. In most major European countries the figure is between 15 and 24 per cent.
In a separate report, the National Union of Students warned that the current fees structure was in danger of putting off poor students from going on to postgraduate studies because of the debts they had already incurred. The courses would be just for rich and international students, it argued, suggesting there should be targeted state support for postgraduate students.