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Academics warn of postgraduate funding 'catastrophe'

9th January 2013

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University leaders have condemned new revelations about the postgraduate funding situation, describing it as a ‘ticking timebomb’.

These are harsh times for postgraduates as universities have increased postgraduate fees by 11% this year in response to teaching grant cuts, while banks offered Professional and Career Development Loans to only 44% of applicants, who then have to contend with the high interest rates these loans incur.

However, it is the news that research councils have withdrawn support for taught master’s courses that has led Vice Chancellors across the country to publicly denounce the ‘economically disastrous and socially divisive neglect’ of postgraduate students.

While no further funding is on the table for taught master’s students, the outlook for research master’s and PhDs isn’t much better, with the number of research students receiving support halving and the number of funded PhD students dropping by 20% in 2013/2014.

But what does this mean in real terms?

In the year 2010/11, 8000 fewer UK students took a taught master’s degree than in 2009/10, and this trend looks set to continue. This is seen as particularly concerning as a taught master’s is often a crucial stepping stone between undergraduate study and a PhD, while it can be vital for many professional careers, and fears are growing that more students are being priced out of the postgraduate market.

University leaders are therefore looking to the government to find a sustainable solution to what one Vice Chancellor calls a ‘policy vacuum’, with Professor Don Nutbeam, Vice Chancellor of Southampton, saying that having no system for ‘an advanced economy that needs high level technical skills and workforce flexibility [is a] catastrophe’. A new campaign group, the Council for the Defence of British Universities, is meeting this month to discuss solutions to the funding black hole, and counts Sir David Attenborough and Professor Richard Dawkins among its members.

Unsustainable and outdated, the postgraduate funding system is in chaos – with students’ prospects at stake, an answer must be found.

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