Postgraduate funding is an inequitable mess and we urgently need to fix it

The current system of financing means that many people who are not from wealthy families are simply priced out.

Any undergraduate student scanning the various university website pages listing postgraduate courses or giving advice on further study will probably notice one consistent statement running through each, namely that it is "hard", "challenging" or "difficult" to finance a Masters or PhD. As a young person used to grim headlines about the financial difficulties faced by their generation, it’s not hard to just shrug your shoulders and accept that this is the way things are in such a tough economic climate. But of course postgraduate study is something that shouldn’t be hard to finance. It shouldn’t be difficult for people to find the resources to further their academic passion or get the qualification necessary to enter their career of choice. But sadly this is the case for thousands of people in Britain who want to get a better education. It is a state of affairs that requires action and the UK and its students are worse off for it.

In many respects, the state of postgraduate study in Britain symbolises a lot of what is wrong with the country as a whole. Postgraduate teaching and research here is world-class, but the way it is funded and provided is ultimately an inequitable mess. The benefits of attending great institutions is all-too close to being the preserve of wealthy students from Britain and abroad. This is largely due to the lack of any sort of comprehensive government financing. Unlike undergraduate degrees, which of course often have high tuition costs but are supported by government-backed low interest loans, there is little support for postgraduate study. The result is that students are often expected by universities to pay the incredibly high cost of attendance up-front. With fees sometimes in excess of ten thousand pounds and the cost of living high, many people who are not from wealthy families are simply priced out. The only chance to pay for tuition and living costs comes from a frankly insubstantial number of scholarships offered by university departments and Career Development Loans offered by banks which are declining in number and are often just offered for courses that can make up the money quickly. The rest is expected to come from students.

Not only is this situation bad, it is getting worse. Fees for taught masters courses, which are often the basis for entry into certain professions, have risen 11 per cent as a result of cuts to teaching grants. Support for such programmes is also being scaled back to nothing by the research councils. The number of PhD students being supported by these bodies is also seeing a 20 per cent cut. If a potential student cannot find support from this shrinking pool, then they can be turned down for not being able to cover the costs of further study, even on the basis of sometimes arbitrary living cost estimates being made by universities. The most high-profile example of this is that of Damien Shannon, who has taken St Hugh’s College Oxford to court for rescinding his offer on the basis that he could not pay the £12,900 in estimated living costs, even though he had access to a £9,000 loan.

The result of this deteriorating situation is that postgraduate study is becoming more and more restricted to the few who can afford to pay thousands of pounds to attend. The postgraduates of Britain are already a less socially representative group than their undergraduate peers: according to research by the Sutton Trust in 2010, 17 per cent of postgraduates went to independent schools compared to 14 per cent of undergraduates. The effects of this are twofold: the lack of access to further study means more and more people lose out on improving their earnings in the long run (the Sutton Trust estimates that students with a masters degree earn on average £1.75m over their lifetimes). If those that do have access are increasingly just those that already have money, the privilege of those at the top will become reinforced. It also makes certain professions more closed off. Fields such as law and academia often require a postgraduate qualification in order to gain entry. Politics is another area which is arguably harder to access in the current system for many: a lot of the think tanks, charities and MPs offices that constitute the political establishment are packed with people possessing masters and PhDs.

It’s a sad state of affairs but one with something of a silver lining, namely that the issue is now rising up the political agenda. Universities and policy makers are increasingly aware of the social and economic costs that come about under the status quo. A variety of bodies are now calling for comprehensive government support for postgraduate study. Many of these proposals are very moderate and practical, mostly calling for the extension of subsidies and loans into further degrees. The NUS has proposed a funding model based on income-contingent loans of at least £6,000 a year, HEFCE is reviewing the way it funds postgraduate courses. Even the centrist Conservative pressure group, Bright Blue, had a call for a system of loans in its recent pamphlet "Modernisation 2.0". High-profile public thinkers such as David Attenborough are also joining the campaign to act on postgraduate funding. Hopefully with persistent and informative pressure some kind of comprehensive support will be implemented at some point. Even if it might require sacrifices elsewhere, it is a critical investment that needs to be made in the nation’s people. Until that day comes, thousands of bright young Brits will continue to have their aspirations dashed by this deeply unfair part of our precious university sector.           

Photograph: Getty Images
Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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