The HE White Paper and Access to Postgraduate Education
Those who care about postgraduate education can take one comfort from the higher education White Paper: unlike almost all of the political debate about higher education in recent years, it at least recognises that postgraduate study exists. That may be the only comfort it offers. There are strong reasons to believe that the government’s proposals for higher education in England will do postgraduate education significant damage.
Postgraduate study already operates as a largely-unregulated market with only limited public financial support, much like the government’s ‘vision’ for the future of undergraduate education. Aside from teacher training provision and a gentlemen’s agreement about PhD fees for home students, universities are free to charge what they like for masters degrees. Whilst some fees are huge (£53,900 for a London Business School MBA anyone?), most have hovered somewhere around the amount for home full-time undergraduate students. For students from comfortably-off families, doing a masters degree after their bachelors is simply to do a ‘Johnny Logan’ (“What’s another year?”).
However the lack of financial support for postgraduates – they are not eligible for student loans for fees and maintenance – is likely to put higher degrees out of reach of graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds. There is no research investigating the impact of Labour’s £3,000+ top-up fees on access to postgraduate study and so the impact of those increased fees on access to postgraduate study can only be guessed at. My research shows that under the Dearing-era fee regime, there were inequalities in access to higher degrees by socio-economic background. These inequalities were largely related to the underrepresentation of disadvantaged students at the most selective institutions, whose graduates are much more likely to enrol for higher degrees. The trebling of tuition fees in 2004 though can be expected to have put off many debt-laden graduates from poorer homes. A further trebling of fees might well kill off the dream of a masters degree, let alone a doctorate, save for the already well-heeled and the fortunate few lucky enough to get one of a dwindling number of state studentships. HEFCE has been asked to investigate the impact of the new higher fees on postgraduate access, but with no graduates under the new system until 2015 at the earliest, the damage will already have been done.
To make matters worse, no-one really knows, including the government, how postgraduate education will be funded in 2012/13. The White Paper defers any decisions to a HEFCE review in the “winter” and maintains the laissez faire approach to postgraduate fees. If undergraduates are charged £9,000 for a full-time year, then it seems highly likely that postgraduate fees for home students will go to at least that level. In fact they may go higher still, because most postgraduate courses are longer, running all year, not just September to June.
Postgraduate degrees in English universities draw in hundreds of thousands of students from around the world each year. What a tragedy then, if the changes in the White Paper put that same excellent provision out of reach of the talented but disadvantaged students that our public university system has been working so hard to encourage into higher education over the past two decades.
Paul Wakeling, Lecturer, Department of Education, University of York
[shortened URL for my responses to BIS on postgraduates: http://bit.ly/oRSyuJ ]