Postgraduate funding is the hidden tragedy of higher education in the UK

It's no wonder overseas students outnumber UK postgrads - there simply isn't the financial support for them

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In recent years endless news stories have discussed the implications of the new funding regime for undergraduate students in which institutions can charge up to £9,000 a year; yet the funding for postgraduate provision - or lack of - has been largely ignored.

The Browne Review in 2010 was briefed to make recommendations on both undergraduate and postgraduate funding provision, yet in the final report just one page was dedicated to the funding of higher level degrees.

The numbers of students accessing taught postgraduate degrees has increased by over 40 per cent in the last decade, but this masks a serious problem that we are facing. In 2002 there were four UK taught postgraduate students for every three overseas students, now just a quarter of postgraduate students are from the UK. Taking for example engineering and technology, skills that are seen as vital to the UK's economic recovery, less than three in 10 students on engineering taught postgraduate courses are from the UK.

Whilst this is a good example of the strength of reputation the British higher education system maintains around the world, the fact remains that the majority of these overseas students will return to their home countries after completing their studies, taking their newly acquired skills, knowledge and experience with them.

Organisations such as Universities UK have long warned about the dangers of not growing the number of UK postgraduates both to support British industry and to ensure a strong pipeline of future PhD students and university research staff.

Consequences for competition

This trend has serious consequences for the UK's global competitiveness. As economies around the world start to show small signs of recovery it is going to be those businesses - and wider economies - that can take advantage of higher level skills and innovation that are really going to benefit. If talented graduates in the UK do not feel able to access higher level education there is a risk that our economy could be left behind in a world that is increasingly driven by innovation and technology.

Generally, international students have better access to financial support for postgraduate education from their governments. With the first cohort of students paying higher fees for their undergraduate degree graduating in 2015 there is a very real concern that unless greater financial assistance is made available, the number of UK students continuing their education will drop further.

In a new report to be launched today the 1994 Group set out some recommendations to address this problem, whilst taking into consideration the financial constraints on the public purse. Assessing the possible different options for supporting taught postgraduate students, the optimal solution for both sides would be a low-cost state-backed student loan scheme.

A system that provides loans of up to £10,000 to students graduating with at least a 2:1, that is payable at per cent on income about £15,000, would cost the government less - probably substantially less - than £50m per year, and a repayment by student of around £10 per week. This is a sum which could be found easily by redirecting money from existing funding pots which clearly are not helping to improve access to postgraduate education.

An international mix of students is a strength of the UK education system and should be encouraged, but we cannot get to the stage where our most talented graduates are simply priced out of the system. Postgraduate education provides the higher level skills and knowledge that our economy will be relying on for strong sustainable growth in an increasingly competitive global market place. Put simply a failure to look again at postgraduate funding could see the UK's economy and higher education system left behind whilst competitors flourish.

Professor Amanda Chetwynd is pro-vice-chancellor for colleges and the student experience at Lancaster University

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