The funding challenges facing undergraduates need no introduction, having marched across the front pages for the majority of 2011. But keeping a lower profile is the cost of postgraduate study. It’s never been a budget option, but students looking to continue on the academic path may worry if the boost a Masters gives their CV is worth the dent it puts in their bank balance.
However, there are ways to make it affordable. Although many universities are increasing their course fees across the board, others are taking a different approach. “We were one of the few who pitched at £6,800 for undergraduate tuition fees and we’ve extended the same principle to postgrad level,” explains Peter McCaffery, deputy vice-chancellor at the London Metropolitan University. “I do not understand how you can have a blanket fee for postgrad courses.”
He acknowledges there has been “hardly any discussion” about the cost of postgraduate courses, and that as a result funding became like “buying a rail ticket”. He says: “It was very confusing. So we simply have a pitched fee that we believe offers good value.”
This means fees for an addiction and mental health policy course are £5,400, a Masters in film production is £6,000, or £7,200 in accounting and finance.
These costs are based on how courses are structured and taught, and the facilities they require. McCaffery believes they compare favourably with undergraduate costs. “We try to treat everyone fairly, we haven’t plucked the figures out of the air,” he says. “The pitch is different depending on the students you’re looking at.”
Peter Allen, the marketing director at the University of Derby, agrees: “Our 2012 undergraduate fees reflect the true cost of delivering different types of courses – classroom, resource intensive and specialist. We’re taking the same approach for our postgraduate course provision, and our postgraduate students will know that they are paying a fair price.”
Allen also points out that part-time study and distance learning can help candidates manage their costs. “We’ve provided part-time and online study options with flexible payment plans for several years, and we intend to continue to provide them into 2012 and beyond.” Regardless of what or where candidates study, these options may allow greater flexibility for working while studying. Distance learning also has the advantage of reducing transport or even accommodation costs.
As well as shopping around for the best deal, there are other ways to ease the financial burden. Students who complete an undergraduate course may find their alma mater offers a reduction on a postgraduate degree – LSE, Manchester Metropolitan University and Edinburgh graduates can claim a discount of up to 10 per cent on their fees if they enrol on a programme at their former university.
Most universities also offer scholarships and bursaries, either across the board or in specific departments (the list on prospects.ac.uk is a good starting point), and occasionally there’s the option of external funding – Target Courses (targetcourses.co.uk) is currently running a competition to win a £2,000 bursary.
A lesser-used tactic is approaching trusts and charities. “They’re an underrated and little-known funding source with amazing flexibility,” explains Luke Blaxill, author of The Alternative Guide to Postgraduate Funding.
“Most have multiple deadlines throughout the year, and turn your application round quickly. They won’t pay for your course lock, stock, and barrel – but they can be an invaluable ally.” Blaxill speaks from experience; he raised £45,000 from 40 charities.
“There’ll certainly be at least one or two charities out there for you.”
Ultimately, there are no shortcuts, and it’s always going to involve serious financial investment to reap the career benefits. But this shouldn’t mean exorbitant costs, says McCaffery. Instead, he believes, universities should be looking to find more efficiencies within their own institutions.
“It’s not necessary to pay a high fee for postgraduate education. The more cynical capitalists will say it’s whatever the market will bear, but that’s not the business we’re in. Making postgraduate education affordable goes to the heart of our mission – it’s about broadening educational and professional opportunity for individuals and enabling them to gain a step-up.”