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.           

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“I will kill myself”: the gay Syrian refugee couple who could be deported from the UK

An EU law means the Home Office could decide to force the couple to leave Britain.

“We haven't any hope this war in Syria will finish. So now we are looking to another country. We're looking to another country to protect us. We haven't got a country anymore.”

Ahmed is a 29-year-old architecture student. In 2013, with a year left of his degree, the Syrian war intensified and he was forced to flee Damascus. He began the arduous journey across Europe with his boyfriend, Said*, hoping to claim refuge in the UK and finish his studies. When they arrived in London last December, he thought the traumatic 4,500km trek across the continent was over. Instead the UK Home Office is threatening the couple with deportation.

When Ahmed left Syria and headed for Istanbul he took nothing with him, hoping his stay would be temporary and that the war would soon end. It was there that he met his boyfriend Said, who, like Ahmed, had left everything behind and joined the city’s estimated 366,000 asylum seekers. They spent two difficult years in Istanbul; neither spoke Turkish, paying for rent and food was a struggle, work was hard to come by and poorly paid. Their relationship was kept strictly secret for fear of any repercussions from those they stayed with. All the while they prayed the situation back home would alleviate and allow for their return.

During his time in Istanbul he received a call from his mother; one of his brothers had been killed in the war. Details of his brother’s death were sparse, with his mother worried about the phone call being tapped, but Ahmed understands that he died trying to protect the district after the Assad regime’s military invaded. Along with one other brother, Ahmed’s mother is all that remains of his family in Syria, with his siblings scattered across Europe and the Middle East. Any lingering optimism of one day returning home, of the war dissipating, faded. With nothing left to keep them in Istanbul and the situation fast becoming untenable, Ahmed and Said decided to move on.

“We stayed together, we supported each other and that made life easier for us,” says Ahmed. “So we decided to not live in Istanbul. There was no chance to stay there. I made a deal with someone to go by boat. We paid money for that, about one thousand dollars. It was so scary to do it. We hadn't any other choice.”

They made their journey across the Aegean Sea with 30 other refugees. Arriving safely ashore, they spent two days in Greece before moving north on foot towards Hungary. They waited at the now closed Hungarian border for two days, uncertain of their next move, until hearing rumours that the Croatian border had been opened.

“We went to Croatia and they [Croatian officials] took us from the border and they put us in a place like a prison,” Ahmed recalls. “It was so bad. We didn't know what happened. We didn't know anything. They took us in a van. It was like a small building with a big campus and it was like there was a big wall around. And cameras everywhere.”

Ahmed estimates that around 500 other refugees were detained at the compound while he was there. During their 48 hour incarceration, they slept outside, were fed three meals a day (usually a bread roll and tuna) and kept completely ignorant about what was to happen to them and why they were there. Eventually officials forced them to register their finger prints and took them to the northern border.

“We refused to do our fingerprints but they said they would not let us go, unless we give our fingerprints,” he says. “They took us from border to border in a van. We have the worst memories there. We didn't know where we were going. We were like animals.”

Passing through Austria, Germany and France, they eventually came to Calais. After spending some time living in the infamous jungle camp, they snuck on to a lorry, crossed the channel and arrived in London. After spending a few nights at his ex-boyfriend’s place, a French-Syrian national and the only person Ahmed knew in the UK, the couple went to the Home Office to file for asylum.

But when they arrived, officials refused to see them. Despite their desperate situation, they were told that they didn’t have an appointment and had to come back in ten days. Instead, they returned two days later, this time assisted by the UK Gay and Lesbian Immigration Group (UKLGIG), who were concerned that the Home Office was illegally turning people away.

“We went to the Home Office to observe as we were very concerned that they didn't have anywhere to live,” says Paul Dillane, executive director of UKLGIG. “If you're destitute you're allowed to turn up immediately, without an appointment, because what else are you supposed to do? We said to the Home Office if they don't get accommodation today I have to pay for a hotel and we don't have the money for that.”

After arriving at 8am, Ahmed and Said were interviewed by six interrogators, as they tried to establish whether to even register their claim to asylum.  “I didn't expect anything from the Home Office, I just wanted to be legal here,” says Ahmed. “I didn't want financial support. I want to go to university. That's it. If I go to another country where they don't speak English it is difficult for me to finish and start university again.”

Eventually, at 6pm, the Home Office agreed to register them and find them accommodation, albeit temporarily. Ahmed and Said are now living in a small studio apartment in Rochdale. It’s the first time since leaving Syria they have had anything resembling a home, the first time in their lives they have felt able to live openly as a gay couple. Such respite may prove short-lived.

Because Ahmed and his boyfriend first entered Europe through Greece, according to an EU law (the Dublin III Regulation) it’s Greece that should take responsibility for their claim. But as the situation in Greece is now a humanitarian crisis, with an estimated 2,000 arriving every day, the UK government no longer deports asylum seekers there. It’s of little consolation to Ahmed. Having heard nothing for weeks, he received a letter summoning him to the Home Office; according to his lawyer, the Home Office is making plans to transfer the couple back to Croatia.

“Even if legally it's possible, the question is: is it the right thing for the government to do?” asks Dillane. “600,000 refugees have gone through Croatia to Germany, and Croatia is struggling to cope. Not to mention only three gay asylum seekers have ever successfully claimed asylum there.”

If Ahmed and his boyfriend are deported back to Croatia there is no guarantee they will be granted asylum. Just three LGBT refugees have been successful in their applications to Croatia, and with more refugees entering the country every day the country’s asylum network is coming under increasing pressure.

Last September, David Cameron announced that the UK would resettle 20,000 asylum seekers by 2020 and that LGBTI refugees would be included in the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement programme. Despite this, Ahmed and Said could still face deportation.

“David Cameron has said he's very worried about the treatment of gay men in Syria because so many of them have been killed by ISIS, by Dhaesh, and so Britain is going to take gay men from Jordan and Lebanon and bring them here,” says Dillane. “The Prime Minister used LGBT Syrians as justification for air strikes. And this week he has been saying countries need to step up, give more, do more. Yet here are two people you're offloading onto a country that can barely cope. How do those two things fit together?”

Today Ahmed will meet with the Home Office to hear the decision. As far as he and his lawyer are aware, the outcome has yet to be decided; the Home Office could concede and accept their claim to asylum, it could simply decide to postpone any decision to a later date. Ahmed’s fear though is he will be immediately detained and deported to Croatia. Having come this far, losing everything and risking more, it’s a fate he refuses to accept.

“We can't go back. I will not go back,” he says. “I’ve decided if they take me to Croatia I will do anything. I will kill myself. I lost everything. I came here and I lost everything. If they would force me to go to Croatia I don't have anything to lose. It will be the end. To stay here . . . will be a life for us. It will not just be asylum, it will be more than that. It will be a real life. We haven't a life anymore. We haven't a lot of choices. We haven't any choices.”

*name changed to protect anonymity as Said’s family do not know that he is gay.