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Is the UK postgraduate system in crisis?

21st January 2013

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The UK is one of only three European countries in which less than 10% of students go on to postgraduate study, when the continental norm is 15-24%. With rows over funding and social mobility, is this an indication of a wider problem with our postgraduate system?

The proportion of students registered on postgraduate courses is steadily decreasing, with the number of part-time postgrads slumping dramatically.

There are several potential reasons for this, including the funding situation. Unlike undergraduate finance, there is not a loan system in place, so postgraduate students have to rely on scholarships, family, sponsors and banks to help cover the cost of their degree. But in what has been described as ‘a perfect storm’, postgrad fees have been hiked up due to teaching grant cuts, research councils are withdrawing support and banks are increasingly reluctant to approve Professional and Career Development Loans.

Understandably, the number of students reticent to spend thousands of pounds on further study is on the rise, especially if they don’t, and can’t, have access to the funds to do so. More students are opting to study abroad at undergraduate and postgraduate level, looking at the continent, where many countries have no or very low tuition fees and offer courses taught in English. Other graduates are choosing to risk it in the world of apprenticeships and internships, acknowledging employers looking for tangible experience in their chosen industry.

However, many professional careers can require a postgraduate degree, such as law, journalism and pharmaceuticals, while there is also the argument that education should be for education’s sake, and not dictated by a market. University leaders have expressed their concerns in the press and have even set up the campaign group Council for the Defence of British Universities.

They point out that postgraduate degrees help students specialise in a particular area, which in turn creates a more ‘flexible workforce’ and stimulates the economy, and it is feared that the situation will worsen once the 9k cohort reach graduation.

But what can be done?

Well, the NUS is calling for a new targeted postgraduate loans system, similar to the undergraduate Student Finance, claiming that postgrad study is currently based ‘not on ability, but ability to pay upfront’. An NUS report proposes a three stream system, in which one stream would offer full support to students most in need, one stream to aid part-time postgrads with the help of employers, and a third to offer a limited number of loans to other high-achieving students. A high interest rate would then be charged for postgraduates who enter well-paid jobs.

However, the NUS points out that this solution isn’t perfect, and the Council for the Defence of British Universities is meeting this month to discuss proposals for fixing the funding system.

The postgraduate funding situation is being described as a crisis and a catastrophe, and will surely only get worse if it isn’t addressed. Until a robust support system is in place, the postgraduate market will continue to price out talented students and damage higher education in the UK.

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