Future generations are being priced out of postgraduate study

(This is a blog for the think tank Intergenerational Foundation, also on their website.)

A few months ago, I was offered a place on a master’s degree in history at Oxford. It’s an achievement I’m pretty proud of. Not many people get an education like that so I felt privileged to get the chance. But I can’t go. Like thousands of young graduates, the option to go on to postgraduate study is either rapidly diminishing or completely out of reach. Owing to a massive increase in postgraduate fees, a lack of systemic (or, well, any) support from the government and rising youth unemployment, the academy door is being slammed shut in the faces of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Here is the problem. Since 1990, the number of postgraduate students in the UK has risen five-fold. And while that number is not wildly dramatic compared to the increase in undergraduate students (doubled across the OECD between 1995 and 2008), it is still a radical acceleration in the market of graduate programmes. On top of this, postgraduate tuition fees have increased by an average of 31.8% per cent between 2003 and 2009, even before the government’s recent cuts in higher education funding. And only an estimated 4% of students from lower socio-economic bands progressed onto master’s and Ph. D programmes in this same period.

Why? It’s obvious. Whatever you think about tuition fees, loans and funding for undergraduates – in fact, forget what you think you know – the postgraduate situation is wholly different. Apart from a few courses, and these are very few, there is no system of support for postgrads. None. Zilch. Unlike undergraduates, who are able to (at worst) claim a loan from the government to cover their fees, postgrads are not so lucky.

The vast majority are self-supported, often studying part-time (if the course allows it – lots at Oxford, including mine, don’t) so as to divide the massive tuition fees over two years and earn some additional income, but only if they can get a job. The job market for young people is not exactly easy – especially because a degree over-qualifies many for the kind of flexible part-time work they need to pay for their studies. Those who can study full-time are either (a) on a non-means tested scholarship or grant given by a relevant body or by the university, or (b) absolutely loaded and/or such good chums with the tooth fairy that they can afford upwards of £14,000 for fees and living costs. History at Oxford, a 9-month programme, costs £17,000.

Scholarships are very rarely awarded to students in need of financial assistance but usually on the basis of their specialisation and how well they fit within the research ethos of the department. That’s jolly reasonable, you could say. Well it is and it isn’t. Universities are perfectly entitled to choose whoever they feel is in the research interests of their faculty and to whom they wish to award the (limited) available funding. But because this is not based on financial need – i.e. not means tested – offering funding to a candidate who may (or may not) be able to afford it without the scholarship results in shutting the door to someone who otherwise cannot. I applied for a scholarship at Oxford (the Clarendon Fund) that awards assistance to 7 students from over 1000 applicants. And statistically, those with the best grades and the best education are ones who went to the best schools and, therefore, have the money already. Attendance at a private school more than doubles the likelihood of progressing from a bachelor’s degree to a postgraduate course – 0.9% to 2.4%.

Help is available to some students in the form of the government’s Professional and Career Development Loan (PCDL). Graduates can borrow up to £10,000 to cover fees and living costs and the loan is taken via Barclays or Co-operative. These are designed for students who wish to take vocational postgraduate programmes – like social work – that qualify them to enter their chosen professions. But there are major flaws. Borrowers have to start paying back one month from the start of their course, whether they get a job or not, and it’s useless if they want to continue on to a Ph. D. For humanities students who do not have a direct, tangible career path before them, they’ll find banks are unwilling to lend money without guarantee of a return. English Literature is not satisfactorily commercially quantifiable. Also, banks are not exactly keen to lend money at the moment, least of all to young people with no assets. Unless you have a blisteringly high credit rating, you are not going to be successful.

Boo hoo. A few graduates can’t go on to another year of tax-dodging and daytime TV? Except we should all be worried about the lack of social mobility this causes. Because of the numbers of graduates in the job market (and competing for places in the academy), the value of a bachelor’s degree is steadily deflating. A nice 2:1 from a nice university? So what? Here are 5,000 other graduates with the same record. As such, the master’s degree is increasingly the benchmark of the best applicants and, alarmingly, is the entry ticket for a rising number of vocations. Internships and jobs in the media (especially national newspapers) more often than not require a master’s course in journalism. These cost around £9,000. And that’s just the tuition fee.

New research is happening and the issue is, tentatively, being raised. CentreForum released a report in October 2011, ‘Mastering postgraduate funding’, which was praised by Nick Clegg (I know, I know, something of a duplicitous history on this sort of thing) as “important in promoting social mobility” and he welcomed the findings of the report. Philip Wales’s Ph. D research at LSE, ‘Access all Areas? The Impact of Fees and Background on Student Demand for Postgraduate Higher Education in the UK’, was released in March and formed the basis of the statistics above. I was interviewed in May as part of a study at the University of York on access to Ph. D study for aspiring academics.

We should care because universities, never really the bastion of social, economic and ethnic diversity, are slipping back, despite the improvements in recent years, towards the kind of exclusivity we associate with Oxbridge colleges. Postgraduate programmes in history, English, film, media, linguistics – unsupported by the PCDL – will soon be, as they will at undergraduate level, available only to the rich, the white, the privately-educated and the male. (Women are already 3% less likely to go on to postgraduate study.) A generation of young people are being priced out of continuing their education, priced out of jobs in academia (hardly the most diverse profession, anyway) and priced out by a generation of predominantly rich, white, privately-educated men, all of whom received free university educations, and who are failing to use their government’s opportunity to make access to education fair for everyone. Until they do, postgraduate study will continue to be the realm only of the rich. The future of academia is going backwards. The valuable research and benefits to society that could be offered by thousands of postgraduate students will be lost for generations.

Liverpool and Fenway Sports Group are in the middle of a time paradox

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(This is a blog for the International Business Times. An edited version is also available on their website.)

Ten days have passed since the sacking of Kenny Dalglish as Liverpool’s seventh manager since their last league title in 1989. And apart from one season (2008-09) under Rafael Benitez, the club have been no closer to the Premier League title than when Dalglish left for the first time, and now look as far from it as ever. Like Erwin Schrodinger, Liverpool’s owners sit in the middle of two futures: ruin and reward. Both, it seems, are at this stage eminently plausible. In these days of seismic change for the club, decisions taken could render short-term success or long-term failure, or vice versa, but not both. The choice of new manager could have profound implications.

Fenway Sports Group (FSG), the club’s owners, are in the middle of a paradox: they have both all the time in the world, and none at all. These are crucial months. Liverpool are far, far behind the spending power of Manchesters City and United, Chelsea and also Arsenal who, despite being transfer market flirts rather than full blown seductive agents like City, can command a match day revenue at the Emirates that is some 125% higher than Liverpool’s. The plans for the new stadium are stalling and Liverpool are being outstripped and outspent by their rivals. Time is of the essence.

And here is the tricky bit. These days being spent raking the globe for suitable managerial candidates are critical for Liverpool’s short- and long-term future. This isn’t the Cuban Missile Crisis (no matter how much Andre Villas-Boas looks like JFK) but FSG are charged with an incredible task in these few days of uncertainty. The club, in lieu of a new stadium popping up before the start of the season, need a clear set of goals. A ten-year plan. Playing the long game could help to circumvent Manchester City’s annual dominance of the transfer market, help to grow the academy and build a team of players that extends into an identity, a legacy.

Kenny Dalglish had the identity. The greatest player in Liverpool’s history, he embodied the tradition and values of the club. What was missing was a plan. Too often under Dalglish Liverpool were reactionary, plugging gaps, steadying, not growing and moving forward. Signings like Jordan Henderson, Andy Carroll and Sebastian Coates hinted at a plan for the future of the squad. But, Coates (who made just 12 appearances all year) aside, as the season progressed it became obvious that these and other acquisitions were not good enough to be the basis of a title-winning squad. On top of that, Dalglish paid ludicrously over the odds for them, a mistake which shattered the owner’s confidence in him being trusted with a budget, and surely contributed to his job being lost.

Early indications are that FSG are looking to appoint a young candidate around whom the club can build a winning ethos and a real since of a dynasty, like the Liverpool of old. Roberto Martinez, Brendan Rodgers and Andre Villas-Boas (none of whom are over 40) have all been linked. While this is a fine plan of attack – a long-term plan is almost certainly Liverpool’s best option – there is also a contradiction. The club is running out of time. Without Champions League money and the ability to attract top players which that competition grants, Liverpool are standing still. Presuming the club’s better players like Pepe Reina, Martin Skrtel and Luis Suarez stay, which is by no means guaranteed, they still need heavy investment over the summer in order to stand a better chance of qualifying for Europe’s top tournament in 2013-14. Another season, or two, without Champions League soccer and Liverpool will be even further from Europe’s elite clubs and further still from that elusive nineteenth Premier League title.

Liverpool are delicately poised between dropping to mid-table and pushing on to compete for the title. If the owners emphasise the long-term, they risk worsening the club’s immediate and faltering present. If they kick the well-needed modernisation of the club into the long grass, they could find themselves presiding over a club that has lost its value and finally lost its place as one of the greatest and most iconic soccer clubs in the world.

The flaw in Sam Harris’s argument is that he is a racist, not that his readers are idiots

Sam Harris posted a blog last week suggesting that Muslims be racially profiled at airports because they’re more likely to be suicide bombers. Heck, they look like them Al Qaeda lot – so why not, right? In 900, unrelenting words of spurious, paranoid horseshit, Harris outlined his argument and, after a few days, added an addendum in order to clarify bits that were misunderstood (as racist) because “it seems that when one speaks candidly about the problem of Islam misunderstandings easily multiply”.

“In any case, it is simply a fact that, in the year 2012, suicidal terrorism is overwhelmingly a Muslim phenomenon,” Harris says. Reasonable point. Not ‘Muslims’ but ‘a minority of Muslims’ would have been more accurate, but OK. Now, don’t extrapolate wildly, will you? Oh, hang on…

“If you grant this, it follows that applying equal scrutiny to Mennonites would be a dangerous waste of time.”

It ‘follows’ does it? How does that ‘follow’? If you think Muslims are more likely to commit suicide via bomb-based explosionary fun it must mean that it would be ‘dangerous’ to waste your time giving equal treatment to other groups or minorities? ‘Dangerous’ because white people and Christians don’t do mass murders? What about Breivik or McVeigh? Enormous leaps in reasoning do not cover Harris’s racist assumptions that one group of people deserves harsher treatment because of the colour of their skin, their religion or the temerity to bring both of those foul characteristics to an airport.