New report argues that postgraduate study has become an “exclusive golf club”

David Kingman examines the criticisms of the UK system for postgraduate study made in a recent report by the Sutton TrustSurprised Graduate

There’s a dark secret at the heart of the UK higher education sector. No, it isn’t the new fees of £9,000 per year, or any of the bureaucratic shenanigans which were exposed in Andrew McGettigan’s recent guide to the “back rooms” of Britain’s higher education policy, The Great University Gamble (reviewed here).

It has to do with postgraduate study, the very important bit of higher education which happens after the majority of people have left university. The dark secret is that access to postgraduate study at the majority of institutions is still largely restricted on the basis of class because the government provides so little public funding for people to take up places.

The frustrations of one would-be postgraduate student who couldn’t afford to take up his place on a postgraduate course at Oxford University have already been aired on this blog last year. Now, a new report by the Sutton Trust has shown how exclusive access to postgraduate education has become.

The scale of the problem

Something which comes as a surprise to many graduates when they look into postgraduate study is how little government help is available to meet the costs. In contrast to undergraduate courses, for which annual tuition fees are capped by the government, universities have few restrictions on how much they can charge people for studying towards MAs and other higher qualifications. Many of these courses cost thousands and thousands of pounds, and yet there is no government-backed loan scheme to provide postgraduate students with the financial support they need to take them.

The result of this is that many postgraduate courses are closed to applicants who can’t afford to pay the fees up-front. Even if the fees don’t have to be paid in advance, many universities don’t allow the students to study part-time, so those who have to pay their own way face a huge struggle to support themselves.

The only form of support which the government is involved in is the Professional and Career Development Loan Scheme (PCDLS), but this is much more heavily-commercialised than the undergraduate student loan scheme: those completing their MAs and PhDs are hounded for interest payments and loan repayments as soon as they finish studying, regardless of their earnings. It also helps very few people: in 2010 fewer than 3% of the total number of postgraduate home students who began courses were being funded through the PCDLS.

The Sutton Trust warns that the lack of financial support available to postgraduate students is likely to have only one outcome:

“There was a 4.5% fall in UK postgraduate participation at English institutions in 2011, while first year part-time enrolments in England fell by almost a quarter. Without policy intervention, these trends are likely to continue, the club is getting more exclusive. Even among graduates with the best first degrees, those from more affluent households are much likelier to be found on postgraduate courses.”

What can be done?

The barriers which prevent talented young people from less well-off backgrounds from entering postgraduate education should be challenged on two counts.

Firstly, they are a scar upon the social conscience of our society. In an age when it is pretty much universally accepted that cost should not bar less advantaged students from entering university at undergraduate level (hence our student loan scheme), why is it acceptable that they should be denied the support they need to develop their talents further?

Secondly, it is harmful for the British economy. The Sutton Trust emphasises that a growing proportion of jobs now require a postgraduate qualification, and they demonstrate that there is a substantial earnings boost for people who succeed in gaining them, which must translate into higher taxes and a substantial benefit overall to the general health of the economy.

Other countries which have income-contingent student loans have managed to extend their coverage to the postgraduate level, notably Australia. So why can’t Britain? When it appears we have largely succeeded in throwing open the gates of academia to all qualified people, regardless of background, it seems extremely regressive for our system to slam them shut again if the most talented want to advance their minds yet further.