University blues: It is time to overhaul postgraduate funding

Declining sponsorship is damaging a system that already favours the wealthy

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That British universities are proving ever more attractive to students from abroad should be cause for celebration. The lustre of our tertiary education sector is burnished, one of our most competitive exports is boosted, and welcome global links are forged. Nor is educating the world’s engineers, historians and computer programmers any kind of threat to our economic future. Or, at least, not if the high-level skills with which we are equipping others are also being developed at home.

Of this, however, there is now some doubt. Indeed, even as the number of international postgraduate students at British institutions increases, the number of their local counterparts is on the wane. The problem is not that sharper-elbowed, bigger-brained or deeper-pocketed foreigners are shoving homegrown graduates aside. It is that fewer Brits are applying.

The reason is, as ever, money. The furore over undergraduate fees has largely faded. Thus far, bills of up to £9,000 per year appear to have had little effect on either how many apply to study or their affluence. It can be argued that too few from disadvantaged backgrounds go to university, but the extra cost does not seem to have markedly worsened the situation.

Postgraduate qualifications are a different matter, though. At that level, students have always largely funded themselves. Now, declining sponsorship and rising undergraduate debt are adding to the pressure on a system already unduly skewed towards the well-off. An even sharper fall-off is expected after 2016, by which time graduates will be £18,000 in the red.

In response, a group of leading universities are calling for a loan system, similar to that for undergraduates, with repayment only once income reaches a certain level. There is no time to waste. Britain’s competitiveness is not threatened by the skills of others but the lack of skills of our own.

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