It always used to be the case that postgraduate study was far more expensive than a first degree. For students, embarking on a Masters meant for the first time confronting the fact that you need to pay to be taught. Then, about a decade ago, as tuition fees were introduced for undergraduates, that distinction began to blur – although postgrad course costs remained much higher than for first degrees. Now though, the situation is about to be turned on its head. Next year, with most universities charging £9,000 for every year of undergraduate study, the price tag for a postgraduate course won’t look so daunting. But one important difference remains. There’s no universal state system of financial support for postgraduate study.
“What students don’t have in postgraduate study is access to the loans that undergraduates have,” says Professor Sarah Hainsworth, graduate dean at the University of Leicester, “which makes it challenging for those who want to get a Masters or other postgraduate qualification.”
But that’s not to say there’s no financial help out there. There are numerous sources of grants and loans. It’s just that money is limited and the competition is fierce. What’s more, course fees have to be paid, in part at least, up front. So, if you’re contemplating entering the postgraduate world, part of the preparation process has to be a financial plan, where you gauge likely expenditure and try to work out how you’ll meet the bills. Expenditure first. There are three main elements to consider: course fees; course materials and other resources you’ll have to buy for yourself; and living costs, including accommodation.
In all three areas, you should be able to build up an accurate picture of your outgoings, while, in parallel, you consider the academic and career-related merits of your courses.
The starting point is course fees, which should be clearly advertised in the university’s online description of the course you’re considering. In some cases, universities have a flat rate that applies to all Masters courses and a different rate for PhDs. But the figure should be easy to find. Materials and resources will differ according to what you’re studying, but don’t forget to take into account compulsory field trips, or costs associated with research projects and dissertation practicals. In these areas, admissions tutors and former students should be able to give you a fair idea of your likely expenditure.
As far as living costs, and particularly accommodation, are concerned, these can vary enormously from one part of the country to another, and should be included in the equation at the application stage. It goes without saying that you’ll need a lot more money to fund a Masters in London, than you will in Aberystwyth or Durham.
Once you add all this up, it’s likely to come to a pretty sizeable sum, and it’s unlikely that you’ll find one single source of funding to meet the whole bill. Most postgraduate students end up trying to put together a package of sources of income and loans, and augment that with part-time work and bumping up the bank overdraft.
The search for funding opportunities, though, normally starts with the university offering the course. A large proportion of PhD courses, and some Masters programmes, have money linked to them, some awarded by the (national) research councils, and some awarded by the universities themselves as a means of attracting high-calibre students to specific courses.
“Any student who comes to our website can see which courses have funding available,” explains Hainsworth. “Sometimes this amounts to full support for fees, and sometimes partial support. We currently have a half-fee waiver for some places on an MRes (a Masters in research methods).”
A look at the University of Leicester’s website shows, by department, which postgrad courses potentially attract which levels of funding. But this is a dynamic area. As places are taken, funding disappears, and occasionally, within the academic year, new funding opportunities are secured and advertised online. This underlines the importance of starting your funding research early. “For postgraduate courses starting in autumn 2012, the possible funding opportunities will be put on our website during October and November this year,” says Hainsworth.
If you are in the early stages of weighing up your postgraduate options, and not even sure which universities you might target, you can get an idea of how all the research councils approach funding by looking at their umbrella website (www.rcuk.ac.uk). Here there are links to each individual research council, where the latest funding information is explained. A large proportion of this funding is for PhD students and post-doctorate researchers.
At the University of Essex, increased priority is currently being given to the task of guiding postgraduates through the funding landscape. A new post of bursaries and scholarships officer is about to be filled, and a new “scholarship finder” added to the website.
“One of the challenges for postgraduate applicants is that there’s a huge variety of types of funding available,” says Joanne Tallentire, deputy director of admissions at Essex. “We try to work collaboratively as a central admissions service with our departmental and faculty colleagues so that wherever the first point of contact for a student is, the applicant gets the right support,” she explains.
“However, we see our responsibility as providing the information and the signposts, and then the onus is on the individual. You need to persevere, be determined and dogged, and the harder you look, the more likely you are to find something.”
However, mirroring the situation at most universities, the vast proportion of funding available through channels at the University of Essex is aimed PhD students, and not those on taught Masters courses, who usually end up meeting their costs through a combination of personal savings, family savings, loans and part-time employment.
But, even if you have no luck applying for any of the funding streams recommended by the university (the ones linked in some way or another to the subject area of your study) that doesn’t mean all hope is lost of getting some financial help. There are other channels to investigate. At the University of Leicester, it is the student welfare office that helps postgraduates look for other potential pots of funding.
“What we’ll say is there’s a possibility that you can apply to charities that offer money to help students, among other categories of people,” says Adrian Gascoigne, one of the advisors at the office. “But we have to warn them that it can take a long time and there’s no guarantee of success.”
Among the websites Gascoigne mentions are www.turn2us.org.uk, which has signposts to numerous charities offering help to people in need of financial help, and www.family-action.org, which can potentially help students who are also parents.
Each university will also probably be able to point to local sources of funding, usually drawing on legacies and trusts set up by local benefactors. At Leicester, for example, Gascoigne tells students about the Sir Thomas White Loan Charity, which has interest-free education loans of up to £9,000 for deserving cases who’ve lived in Leicestershire for at least four years, and the Harry James Riddleston Charity in Leicester, which offers similar loans.
Every university has links to similar charities and trusts. Among those connected to the University of Birmingham, for example, are the Charles Brotherton Trust, created by a chemical manufacturer, which gives small bursaries to selected science students, and the Whitworth Scholarship scheme, which meets course fees for some postgraduates in engineering disciplines.
Another potential source of funding explored by large numbers of postgraduates is the Professional and Career Development Loan system, administered jointly by the high street banks and the government-backed Young People’s Learning Agency. These loans are aimed at anyone using education to further their career prospects, and at people starting up their own business. Loans can be between £300 and £10,000, and the recipient does not pay any interest until they have finished their course.
But if you can’t secure one of these revenue streams, and the arithmetic of your study-time finances is looking pretty frightening, there are one or two options to avoid money worries taking over your life and ruining the educational experience.
“We sometimes also talk to people about changing to a part-time or distance learning model of study,” says Gascoigne. “We know, for example, the types of course where it is more likely that someone will be able to transfer to part-time study.”
And finally, there’s the option of deferring study for a year or so, to enable you to build up a pot of money that will ease your passage through the study period. Most universities will be sympathetic to this course of action, as it is in their interests, too, that students are not unduly distracted from their studies by financial concerns.