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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.

Photograph: Getty Images

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.