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.

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3 thoughts on “Future generations are being priced out of postgraduate study

  1. Bang on. Higher education economics are freakish – one of the only ‘products’ in the world that people of all shapes and sizes will do whatever they can to purchase no matter how expensive it is, or even without understanding what they’re about to get for their money. Add in the infinite positive externalities for individuals and for society just as you say and the really obvious and straightforward conclusion is that a government would have to be totally bonkers to treat or convert universities toward a purer market system. It’s awful to think that arts masters are both out of step with what employers need/want *and* totally inaccessible to most people… they become hobbys for rich people to become pros in subjects in which they’re somewhat interested. Sad face.

  2. I don’t wish to be critical but I feel there might be a couple of flaws in your reasoning. Firstly you suggest that post grauate education will be out of the reach of all but the most rich in the humanities – but you also admit that post graduate scholarships are given out on the basis of ability, which, unless you are suggesting that only the very rich can be very bright, is not quite the same thing. Giving money from a limited pot to the best qualified applicants doesn’t seem unreasonable, especially as those that criticise Oxford (in particular) for its failure to admit more state school educated pupils make so much of how well those that are admitted do in relation to their privately educated peers. A second flaw might be the belief that it is your right to be funded by someone else so that you can increase your earnings potential in the future. Perhaps a job and living within your means for a couple of years and then, once you have saved (very old fashioned concept – delayed gratification) sufficent funds post grad work might be a more reasonable approach? Or, if you wish all education at post A-level to be fully funded by the public you might like to consider a drastic reduction in the number of students, thus ensuring that those good enough to go to the 25 or so universities worth the title in this country could be fully funded. But what then of social mobility? Perhaps a selective education system – like the Butler Act envisaged. But we had that, before we decided that it was elitist. (By we, I of course mean a generation who had largely benefited from it.)

  3. Hi Dave. I’m not suggesting that only the very rich can be very bright, but that, statistically, you are more likely to get a scholarship if you had a good education, and the more highly-educated are usually from private school backgrounds. It’s certainly not unreasonable to give money to the better students (I actually make that point, and universities are entitled to fund whoever they choose) – but what is unreasonable is when that money is given to a talented student who could have afforded the course themselves and therefore the scholarship opportunity is lost to someone equally talented who could not otherwise afford it. I’m arguing for means testing or a recognition that more needs to be done to distinguish between those who can and cannot afford it on their own.

    With your second point, I think, with respect, you’re using a common argument that education benefits only the student themselves in their personal increased earning potential. Many people do get jobs (if they can) and save, but this is, increasingly, very difficult. And in the case of Oxford, where the course is an obligatory full-time programme, and you must live in Oxford, you’re expected to show you can find £17,000 before you start in fees and maintenance, etc. Now you show me a recent graduate earning enough to save that kind of money in ‘a couple of years’. (Incidentally, depending on their home situation, they may be having kids, getting married, saving for a house, and so on, and the number of mature students who return to postgraduate humanities course is very, very low, possibly for this reason.) The idea that postgraduate – and, indeed undergraduate – study benefits only the person taking the course because they get to double their likely earnings is nonsense and an incredibly narrow way of considering education. In economic terms, higher earners pay more tax, spend more on disposable incomes, get mortgages, take out loans, have more children (who go to university and repeat the above), and so on. The state makes serious money from those who earn more, usually as a result of a degree. And in intellectual and cultural terms, we benefit from the dissemination of knowledge and experience, cultural awareness, and our national, social education improves with a greater number of highly-educated people.

    Also, I reject that, in order to balance the books because of funding free education for so many, we would need to cut university places and thus damage social mobility. (My article is actually about postgraduate and not undergraduate fees, where the system is very different, but I will answer your point, anyway!) The current £9,000 system was sold on a quite phenomenal lie: we’re in recession, we can’t afford to bankroll thousand of students doing so many degrees on the cheap, students will have to start paying their way. All very plausible – and timely. Except it wasn’t true, because the new system is more expensive to the state, puts a greater debt burden on the younger generation, dissuades many more poorer students from applying and, because it is more costly, allows the government to introduce further rises in the fee cap to suit another austerity argument a few years down the line. It’s the gift that keeps on giving for a government that wanted one thing: to cut access to university for thousands and make the degree more elite.

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