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The HE White Paper and Access to Postgraduate Education

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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
http://www.york.ac.uk/education/our-staff/academic/paul-wakeling/
http://twitter.com/#!/pbjwakeling

[shortened URL for my responses to BIS on postgraduates: http://bit.ly/oRSyuJ ]

  1. See Geoff Whitty’s thoughts on this – http://pearsonblueskies.com/securing-the-future-of-postgraduate-education/

    It’s really time to think about innovation, research and postgrads.

  2. As a recent (Scottish) graduate hoping to go on to an MLitt at a Scottish university, I’m concerned not just about postgraduate study prospects in general, but about the direction in which the funding is going. Although a lot has already been said about the discrepancy in funding between Arts and Humanities and the Sciences, it’s something that needs a great deal of protection. As an undegraduate historian, I’ve already seen a massive shift occurring in what is considered ‘acceptable’ in termss of funding for postgraduates, and there’s a real need to keep reinforcing the message about the merits of other academic disciplines besides those that make money. The ability to broden your knowledge by learning for learning’s sake, simply because you love your subject, is slipping out of the grasp of working class students like me. I’ve already had to take a year out to try and find work to fund my Masters; who knows how long I’ll need to woork to finance a PhD because I want to teach in a HE setting? It’s little wonder that there are precious few academics from disadvantaged backgrounds as it is…

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