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
Lizzie Porter
Show Hide image

Where the Yazidis fled next

Two years ago this month, Islamic State slaughtered thousands of Yazidis in northern Iraq. What happened to those who made it to Europe?

In the foothills of Mount Olympus, the location of the Petra refugee camp in Greece should make it a haven. Surrounded by pine trees, with the snow-topped summit of the gods’ mythological home in the distance, the quiet refuge houses groups of women sitting peacefully in the shade. Families cook vegetable pasties in hot oil and children dance in circles on sun-parched grass.

In reality, it is not, of course, an idyll. The tented site – on the grounds of a former psychiatric hospital – is home to 1,300 of the 4,000 Yazidis currently in Greece. They fled the Islamic State advance on their homeland in northern Iraq in August 2014, when the terror group slaughtered 5,000 of their kin in an internationally recognised genocide.

But while these members of the religious minority escaped the immediate danger of IS, they found fear and poverty in their flight.

They are among 50,000 people trapped on Greek soil after European countries shut their borders in March. Housed in camps with poor water, electricity and food supplies, there is disquiet between ethnic and religious groups, including the Yazidis.

The ethno-religious group, who numbered 600,000 in Iraq before the arrival of IS, follow a non-Abrahamic faith and worship Melek Tawwus, a fallen angel. Because their traditions are derived from multiple religions, some followers of other faiths consider them heretical and worthy of punishment.


Katsikas camp. All photos: Lizzie Porter

The poor health and sanitation conditions for Petra’s residents – half of whom are under 18 – are obvious. Cream canvas tents, searingly hot under the Mediterranean sun, are packed tightly, guy ropes tangled together. Some families have cooking equipment, and fires are lit in narrow alleyways.

“The water is not clean and the children are sick”, one Yazidi woman from Sinjar in northern Iraq tells me at the camp, in fluent English. “One day two long snakes came into the tent. The children have bites and the toilets here are very bad.”

According to the UNHCR, three daily meals are provided, including hot food, and authorities collect waste. But it also admits that there are just 30 toilets, 20 showers and 60 water taps for the whole camp. There are no separate washing facilities for women. The colonel managing Petra would not let me inspect the washing facilities.

Petra’s residents are solely Yazidi: they say they fear persecution and violence in camps housing people of mixed ethnicities and religions. The UNHCR admitted to me that there have been “tensions” between Yazidis and other refugee groups.


Yazidi babies.

Naji Haji, a 27-year-old resident also from Sinjar, said the authorities treated them well, but that friends in another camp north of Thessaloniki had been beaten by other refugees because of their faith.

“Yazidi people in other camps want to come to Petra,” he said. 

Several hundred other Yazidis initially gathered in Katsikas camp, near the Albanian border.

Falah, a 30-year-old Yazidi barber from Sinjar, is among them, along with his two children, wife and parents.

When IS invaded his village last summer, they kidnapped his mother’s father, four cousins and two of his brothers: “They came with guns and knives. I saw them kill people.”


A Syrian Kurd and his daughter.

The community fled to Mount Sinjar, where they stayed for ten days with little food or water, before escaping to Iraqi Kurdistan, then to Turkey and onto Greece.

“The Yazidi people on Mount Sinjar died from no food or water or hope. I brought my children here because I wanted to live,” he adds.

A fortnight ago, Yazidi activist Nadia Murad and a former ICC prosecutor visited Petra camp as part of a campaign to bring criminal charges on Islamic State. In June the UN recognised the August 2014 massacre as a genocide, echoing a declaration by US Secretary of State John Kerry in March.

But Haji, whose brother was killed in a car bomb in 2007, said he felt afraid even in Europe.

“We feel little hope in Europe. We managed to escape Daesh”, he says, using the Arabic acronym for IS. “But now they are in France, Germany, and all states.”


Yazidi family.

While the UNHCR says it visits Petra daily to monitor the situation, The Liberation of Christian and Yazidi Children of Iraq (CYCI), is doing its best to support the Yazidi minority.

The NGO’s country co-ordinator, Julide Glanz, is mindful of the danger of exacerbating tensions between ethno-religious groups.

“When we speak of Muslims [who discriminate against Yazidis] we are referring to the brainless fanatics who drag the name of Islam into the dirt,” she says. “Muslims had to flee too and on their journey the Yazidis took them in and accepted them as one of their own.”

She insists Yazidi-only camps are the best way of minimising violence. On the Petra model, for example, Greek authorities moved Yazidis at Katsikas to their own camp nearby in July. “The fear is big and there is little protection,” Glanz says.

A lack of interpreters of Kermanji – the dialect of Kurdish spoken by Yazidis – is a problem, according to Greek authorities. A spokesperson tells me that there is a lack of interpreters in all refugee languages, including Arabic, Farsi and Pashto, “let alone a rare dialect like Kermanji. We are trying to manage the situation by using English-speaking refugees of the same ethnic group.”


Tent at Katsikas camp.

What of the future? Falah feels increasingly desperate. “Here there is no money, no tea, no food, nothing. Before, people had money, but we paid €10,000 (£8,600) to the people smuggler to get us to Greece.”

Elsewhere, there is some hope. Abu Roudyan, a 27-year-old Yazidi originally from Bahzani in northern Iraq, lived in Petra camp with his wife and young children for over three months. They have now managed to get to Germany, while Roudyan waits in Athens.

“Iraq is at war and women are kidnapped and children are killed,” he says. “The important thing for the future of my family is safety in Germany.”

Lizzie Porter is a freelance Middle East news and features journalist based in Beirut.