Facing up to the funding crisis

Hit hard by belt-tightening and tougher Border Agency rules, institutions and students alike are enduring difficult times

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The Independent Online

Second-class citizens. Overlooked and under appreciated. Speak to postgraduates in the UK and this is how they describe their present condition.

And that is those who have the good fortune to call themselves postgraduates – too many are finding their pathway to higher study blocked, either through lack of funding or, in the case of international students, Border Agency rules.

Many postgraduates, despite their undisputed contribution to the prosperity and reputation of the UK, feel overshadowed by undergraduate education.

Funding for undergraduates dominates discussions about higher education, while postgraduates barely get a mention. The Browne Review of 2010 was dismissive of postgraduate issues, meriting just one page out of the 64-page report.

Two years on and another report on the higher education sector has been published. This time postgraduate funding is in the spotlight, with the Higher Education Commission calling for “urgent action”. Indeed, Joel Mullan, the HEC inquiry’s senior researcher, says the sector faces the “perfect storm” of higher tuition fees, choked-off credit, a weak labour market and a policy disparity between strategic ambition and funding realities.

The national vision for a globally competitive knowledge-based economy will not be realised if our postgraduate sector withers for lack of funding.

And while the Browne Review’s one page on postgraduate funding included a cursory mention of the potential impact of higher undergraduate tuition fees on future postgraduate numbers, the HEC inquiry makes clear this could pose a significant threat to the health of the sector.

Failure to act, warns the HEC, will put at risk the nation’s future prosperity.

Its recommendation? State-backed student loans for postgraduate taught programmes, along similar lines to the loan system already operating at undergraduate level.

There appears to be growing support for this idea. “When we started looking at this a year ago, there was virtually no talk about loans,” recalls Mullan. “But in recent months it has really moved up the agenda.”

Indeed, a state-backed loan for postgraduates was referenced in a July report on STEM education by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, gained the backing of the Lib Dem party conference in August, while Alan Milburn, the former Secretary of State for Health, came to the same conclusion in his October 2012 report on social mobility. “There’s a real head of steam starting to gather on this issue,” says Mullan.

The HEC is calling for a taskforce to examine the feasibility of a postgraduate loan scheme and develop policy options, reporting by December 2013.

If this seems like an ambitious timetable – this is government, after all – it’s because many observers believe the clock is ticking. In 2015 the first graduates will be emerging from the higher fees regime and will provide the first evidence of whether the most indebted generation of students has an appetite for further study.

The current funding system is feeling the strain. A large proportion of postgraduate research students receive Research Council or institutional funding, with charitable organisations or employers providing further support.

But the largest group, 37.6 per cent, are self-funded, particularly in the arts and humanities.

Austerity measures mean that state and institutional funding is increasingly supporting the vital organs of HE, namely doctoral research, with the brightest PhD students attracting research grants. Warwick University, for example, has seen its research population increase 63 per cent since 2006, has announced additional funding to extend its Chancellor’s PhD scholarships from three to three and a half years, adding to the £17m distributed to PhD students in 2011-2012.

There isn’t an unlimited pot of money, however. “As much as universities want to support Masters students, we simply can’t do it all,” says Professor Jackie Labbe, chair of Warwick Graduate School.

As Labbe points out, the big worry is that a Masters degree is increasingly the gateway to doctoral research, yet funding for Masters qualifications is lacking. Research Council funding for one year Masters courses has largely been withdrawn. For postgraduate-taught students, the pickings are even more meagre, with the vast majority receiving little or no financial support.

Outstanding students may warrant a scholarship from their faculty and some universities offer loyalty discounts for continuing students: Keele University, for example, reduces course fees by a generous £1,000 for graduates who stay on for a Masters.

Around 10,000 students take out professional and career development loans, but the banks are less keen when it comes to lending to would-be postgraduates.

What’s more, the terms can be punitive; the House of Lords Science And Technology Committee described repayment conditions on PCDLs as “fairly onerous”.

Other options for funding? The Bank of Mum and Dad, raiding savings (if any have survived the undergraduate years) and what debt you can muster.

“The sad reality is that for a growing number of people, a postgraduate education is going to be out of reach,” says Mullan. “And this is happening at the same time that certain industries are increasingly requiring a postgraduate degree to gain entry.”

There are worries that this will widen social inequalities as higherpaid jobs are effectively closed to those unable to self-finance postgraduate study; the Browne Review itself highlighted that 17 per cent of postgraduates are privately educated, compared to 14 per cent of undergraduates and seven per cent of the population.

Would-be postgraduates need to be pro-active to seek out different pots of funding, from research bodies, charities and within their own institution.

“You can build up a funding package from different places,” says Tim Oliver, who is studying for a PhD in international relations at the University of Hull, “although it does depend what field you’re in as some attract more sources with deeper pockets.”

Oliver funded his Masters by emptying his savings, support from his parents and a scholarship that halved his course fee. He says he counts himself “extremely lucky” to have a scholarship for his PhD, which is topped up with teaching, and points out that other good students are deterred by the costs. “I know people across the income spectrum who would love to do a Masters but just can’t afford it.”

Others agree. “We’re losing good people in higher education because of the financial barriers to entry,” says Andy Irwin, president of the postgraduate association at Keele University. Irwin, who has just finished a Masters in politics, drew on financial help from his mother, a scholarship and part-time work, at times holding down two jobs as well as studying. “When you don’t have much money, you spend a lot of time worrying about it rather than thinking about your subject,” he says.

Like many others, he sees an extension of the undergraduate loan system as a credible solution to the current funding crisis. Indeed, the exclusion of one-year Masters programmes from the current loan system is something of an anomaly given that Student Loan Company funding is available to a wide range of students, including STEM undergraduates on a four-year course that converts into a Masters in the final year (AKA an integrated Masters), providing a neat pathway from undergraduate to doctoral research.

However, universities are already battling on another front, supporting international students in their battles with the UK Border Agency. Many fear that the Agency’s new rules are undermining the UK’s reputation as a world-class centre for postgraduate study and research.

“Numbers have plummeted this year,” says Dr Debbie Bartlett, programme leader for the University of Greenwich’s MSc in environmental conservation, who reports that recent changes in UK Border Agency legislation has had a massive impact on the numbers of international students.

She says that her class numbers have shrunk from over 20 to just five this year. “It’s not that people aren’t applying, they’re just not getting visas,” she continues. “We’re not the only ones asking if these programmes are even viable anymore.”

Bartlett fears the long-term impact of the new rules, which may make better headlines on immigration numbers but could threaten UK interests.

“Education is a big earner for this country, but people will no longer want to come here now that post-study work visas have been discontinued,” she says. “It is also counter to international development aims. Our postgraduates return to their countries with new skills and knowledge to effect real change at home.”

Professor Alan Reed, director of postgraduate research at Greenwich, says the UK’s ambition to be a leading knowledge- intense economy is at risk unless these issues are addressed urgently. “If you do not get the pipeline starting to fill up, you will not get much coming out the other end,” he points out.

Successive governments have made much of HE’s central role in building the high-value economy of tomorrow. Many feel that it is now time to back that talk with action.