Much attention is being devoted to the effect that top-up fees will have on undergraduate recruitment. But anyone who thinks that is the only concern should think again. In three years' time it will be postgraduate recruitment that will be threatened, and unless action is taken now, it will be too late to respond by then.
Analysis of the financial forecasts of English higher education institutions shows that they are planning to increase home and EU full-time postgraduate numbers by 14.9 per cent between now and 2008/09. That might just be achievable. But what then? Currently, because they recognise the benefits of having a Masters or doctorate in the job market, many students completing first degrees are willing to take out loans to cover their expenses for another year or more.
Universities are presumably basing their growth plans on the expectation that more students will take the same approach. This is reasonable, given the increasing number of first degree graduates: more graduates will want the competitive edge in the job stakes that a postgraduate qualification can bring.
But how justified will this be in the age of top-up fees? Full-time undergraduates graduating at the end of 2008/09 will be the first to have been subject to top-up. Estimates of the average debt such students will have accumulated are varied, but a figure of £15,000 seems not unreasonable. How many such students will be willing to remain in full-time education?
In the absence of market research, it is reasonable to suppose that full-time postgraduate UK recruitment will be adversely affected. There is no research basis for assuming that the growth planned for the period to 2008/09 can be sustained thereafter. There must be a huge risk of recruitment shortfall. And many institutions will have large numbers of postgraduates, so the stakes are significant.
What action should be taken now to mitigate the risk? Some focused research would not go amiss. Whatever happens to postgraduate fees, there will need to be major reviews of scholarship and bursary schemes. Such schemes exist at present, but are not at anywhere near the levels required for UK/EU students in the new order.
How will more generous postgraduate scholarships be financed? For undergraduates, the massive growth in scholarships and bursaries is being funded by money from top-up fees. Will postgraduate fees be similarly raised to enable a proportion of the additional income to be creamed off for student support? How can much higher fees be sustained in an up-front payment mode? Would this be taking widening participation one step too far?
Perhaps we should just accept that full-time UK postgraduate numbers will seriously decline, and turn attention to other methods of dealing with the situation. One approach would be to encourage part-time study using flexible means of delivery. There are, of course, such opportunities for postgraduate study already, but not to the extent that might be necessary.
If this is to be the trend for the future, the time to prepare is now. Few universities are set up to provide part-time flexible courses. The task is not trivial. Academic staff will need considerable time to develop curricula and strategies for learning. Staff development units will have their hands full, especially where the institution is starting from a traditional base. Institutional infrastructure, systems and services will all need to be modified. Time is short.
The writer, the former vice-chancellor of Coventry University, is chairman of Heist