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
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Emmanuel Macron offers Theresa May no comfort on Brexit

The French presidential candidate warned that he would not accept "any caveat or any waiver" at a press briefing in London.

Emmanuel Macron, the new wunderkind of French politics, has brought his presidential campaign to London. The current favourite to succeed François Hollande has a natural electoral incentive to do so. London is home to 300,000 French voters, making it by France's sixth largest city by one count (Macron will address 3,000 people at a Westminster rally tonight). But the telegenic centrist also took the time to meet Theresa May and Philip Hammond and to hold a press briefing.

If May hoped that her invitation would help soften Macron's Brexit stance (the Prime Minister has refused to engage with his rival Marine Le Pen), she will have been left disappointed. Outside No.10, Macron declared that he hoped to attract "banks, talents, researchers, academics" away from the UK to France (a remark reminiscent of David Cameron's vow to "roll out the red carpet" for those fleeing Hollande). 

At the briefing at Westminster's Central Hall, Macron quipped: "The best trade agreement for Britain ... is called membership of the EU". With May determined to deliver Brexit, he suggested that the UK would have to settle for a Canadian-style deal, an outcome that would radically reduce the UK's market access. Macron emphasised that he took a a "classical, orthodox" view of the EU, regarding the "four freedoms" (of people, capital, goods and services) as indivisible. Were Britain to seek continued financial passporting, the former banker said, it would have to make a significant budget "contribution" and accept continued immigration. "The execution of Brexit has to be compliant with our interests and the European interest".

The 39-year-old avoided a nationalistic tone ("my perspective is not to say France, France, France") in favour of a "coordinated European approach" but was unambiguous: "I don't want to accept any caveat or any waiver to what makes the single market and the EU." Were the UK, as expected, to seek a transitional arrangement, it would have to accept the continued jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

Elsewhere, Macron insisted that his liberal economic stance was not an obstacle to his election. It would be fitting, he said, if the traditionally "contrarian" France embraced globalisation just as its counterparts were rejecting it. "In the current environment, if you're shy, you're dead," he declared. With his emotional, straight-talking approach (one derided by some as intellectually threadbare), Macron is seeking to beat the populists at their own game.

But his views on Brexit may yet prove academic. A poll published today showed him trailing centre-right candidate François Fillon (by 20-17) having fallen five points since his denunciation of French colonialism. Macron's novelty is both a strength and a weakness. With no established base (he founded his own party En Marche!), he is vulnerable to small swings in the public mood. If Macron does lose, it will not be for want of confidence. But there are unmistakable signs that his forward march has been halted. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.