Student loan repayment Holiday Sheffield

February 29, 2016
Ashley House - Sheffield

Miles Cole illustration (18 September 2014)Source: Miles Cole

Of the 29, 155 additional postgraduate starters at UK universities in 2007-08 compared with 2002-03, only 5, 599 were home students

According to Tony Strike, director of strategy, planning and change at the University of Sheffield, such stories illustrate that there are currently a large number of people who would jump at the chance to undertake taught postgraduate study if only they could afford to do so.

The scholarship was one of 426 given out as part of a £4.3 million scheme co-funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s Postgraduate Support Scheme and the universities of Sheffield, Leeds, York, Warwick, Manchester and Newcastle. The Sheffield-led scheme, which focused primarily on courses relating to the professions, was five times oversubscribed.

Nor is that level of demand an isolated case among the scheme’s 20 pilot projects. The University of Oxford scholarship scheme aimed at poor and under-represented postgraduates had a 75 per cent application rate from those eligible, while about 140 home postgraduates have applied for 100 loans offered by Cranfield University (see ‘Funding sources: the postgraduate support scheme’ box).

The £25 million Postgraduate Support Scheme was hastily established last summer to explore the best ways of spending the annual £50 million in funding reallocated, from 2015-16, to “remove financial or cultural barriers to participation in postgraduate education” after the £150 million undergraduate National Scholarship Programme was scrapped in 2013.

Miles Cole illustration (18 September 2014)The reallocation illustrates how the issue of postgraduate finance has risen to political prominence over the past few years, culminating in the announcement that the government will set out its proposed solution to the acknowledged problems in this year’s Autumn Statement, due on 3 December.

In 2009, the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, headed by former Labour Cabinet minister Alan Milburn, noted that postgraduate degrees “have increasingly become an important route into many professional careers”. Lamenting the lack of a “student support framework equivalent to the framework for undergraduates”, it concluded that “if fair access is to be possible, this issue will need to be addressed”.

It is certainly true that existing support for taught postgraduates in particular is paltry. While postgraduate research students still have access to a significant number of studentships funded by charities and the research councils, the latter scrapped their support for master’s students following the 2010 Spending Review. Even before that, Sir Adrian Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of London and former director-general of knowledge and innovation at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, estimated in his 2010 report One Step Beyond: Making the Most of Postgraduate Education that about 30 per cent of postgraduate researchers and 60 per cent of taught postgraduates did not receive any support for tuition fees or living costs.

Bank-administered professional and career development loans permit students to borrow up to £10, 000, with the interest paid by the government while they are studying. But the loans are shunned by most students, probably on account of the perceived harshness of their repayment conditions, and several banks have recently withdrawn from offering them. They must be paid back within five years, beginning a month after graduation, at an annual interest rate of 9.9 per cent.

Some alternative finance options are becoming available on slightly better terms, but they remain small-scale and even the companies offering them admit that they are unlikely to appeal to students on an academic track or those heading into lower-paid professions (see ‘There is another way: alternative finance options’ box).

Despite this deficit, Lord Browne of Madingley’s government-commissioned, which was also published in 2010 and paved the way for £9, 000 undergraduate fees, dedicated just one page to postgraduate education, dismissing the case for extending the undergraduate student loan system on the grounds that participation in taught postgraduate courses increased by 25 per cent between 2002-03 and 2008-09; the private benefits of taught postgraduate education were “predominant” over public ones; and there was “no evidence” that the absence of support “has had a detrimental impact on access”.

Smith’s review also found “little in the way of robust evidence on whether the cost of postgraduate study and the lack of student support prevent those who would otherwise have pursued postgraduate study from doing so”, although it acknowledged that “anecdotal feedback from both students and [higher education institutions] is that this is an issue”.

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