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The coming crisis in postgraduate funding


There is a significant and growing crisis in funding for postgraduate study in Britain, according to 11 university vice-chancellors.

Amongst many of the UK’s leading universities there is a fear that this year’s undergraduates, who face £9,000-per-year tuition fees, will neglect studying further due to the increase in fees, even as avenues for funding postgraduate degrees slam shut.

‘The changes to the funding of undergraduate education and the subsequent rise in undergraduate fees in England will inevitably lead to a rise in postgraduate fees,’ according to vice-Chancellor Professor Don Nutbeam of the University of Southampton. Recent figures have shown that postgraduate fees have increased by 11 per cent this year, while universities received 8,000 fewer post-graduate students in 2010-11 than the previous year.

Students have expressed concern for lack of funding in post-graduate study. Pamela Head, studying MA Multimedia Journalism at the University of Kent Medway, said she has ‘a few friends who want to study for a Masters but can't afford to do so.’

Pamela adds that students are caught between an increasingly dire job market and undergraduate debt, ‘further study [is] definitely a popular option when the alternative is claiming jobseekers allowance and sitting at home applying for thousands of jobs. The feeling is - well, we're already in debt thanks to our undergraduate degree, so what's another few thousand pounds?’

Laurie McDonald, studying an MA in Newspaper Journalism at Nottingham Trent University, explained that to ‘pay the fees I worked part time throughout my third year… I think that it will become almost impossible for people like myself from working class backgrounds to be able to get into postgraduate study for lack of finances.’

The protest comes after the NUS published their postgraduate funding proposals in November. NUS Vice President for Higher Education, Rachel Wenstone, commented: ‘The current system is grossly unfair. Our proposals are a first step towards making postgraduate education accessible, and based on merit rather than on wealth.’

Vice Chancellors from East London, Cardiff, Southampton, Queen Mary, Queens, Belfast, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Essex, Exeter and Loughborough have all spoken out. Professor Andrew Hamilton of the University of Oxford has commented that ‘the health of the UK’s research base depends critically on the supply of talented graduates.’ He also noted that ‘It is dispiriting to say the least to learn that the share of GDP the UK spends on higher education has fallen to 1.2 per cent, thereby pushing it still further down the OECD index.’

Matthew Gilley, a second year at the University of Kent and prospective journalist commented that ‘postgraduate study is simply necessary for lots of careers, like journalism, and so if the numbers of postgraduate students drops as funding is taken away then there's a risk of a shortage in those professions.’

There are fears that if the number of postgraduate students continues to fall, UK universities will have a shortage of research and postgraduate students to fill high-qualification posts. Professor Don Nutbeam argues that ‘unless we address this funding challenge … [postgraduate study] will not meet the evolving future needs of our advanced economy.’