The UK’s coalition government wasted no time in accepting and implementing the majority of Lord Browne’s 2010 recommendations on undergraduate fees and finance, setting in motion a whirlwind of changes that have transformed higher education in England. 
The impact of trebling tuition fees was just the beginning, with the sector now convulsing from the G-force of the government’s decision to lift the cap on admission numbers and the fresh bargaining power granted to students who surpass grade expectations at A-Level. Universities are now ploughing resources into luxury student accommodation and facilities to attract the hordes of empowered undergrads through their newly thrust-open doors. 

Yet if this government has moved undergraduate education into the fast lane its foot firmly to the floor, postgraduate financing has been left trundling along in the hard shoulder.

The same Browne Review that devoted extensive analysis to the future of undergraduate funding gave barely a page to the postgraduate system, declaring that “postgraduate education is a successful part of the higher education system and there is no evidence that changes to funding or student finance are needed to support student demand or access”. This left in place the status quo of postgrads relying on a combination of bank loans, personal savings and generous parents to fund their study. 

This seemed to be a reasonable reflection of the situation at the time, with the numbers of UK students starting a postgraduate course reaching its peak in 2009-10 – but the sirens were sounded even then, with Aaron Porter, then president of the National Union of Students, labelling Browne’s findings “complacent”, and “unreflective of the reality” that the postgraduate system of finance was inadequate. How prescient that warning turned out to be, with the numbers of new UK students entering postgrad study dropping by 17% over the next three years.  

Universities are clear that postgraduate numbers are not spiralling downwards because of a growing disinterest in graduates pursuing further study. Indeed, recent evidence from a new scholarship scheme designed to give those from disadvantaged backgrounds a leg-up suggests that some financial support is all the incentive that’s needed.

Six Russell Group universities – Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield, Warwick and York – joined forces last year to put together the country’s biggest ever postgraduate scholarship offer to 426 students at a total cost of £6m. The results of that offer have been staggering. The universities have had to turn away 1,700 applicants, with the scheme five-times oversubscribed. 

“The message of this is clear,” said Professor Sir Keith Burnett, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Sheffield. “When you remove the financial barriers, there is an overwhelming demand to continue study which offers students the opportunities to enter professions which require postgraduate qualifications – to be teachers, architects, chartered engineers, lawyers and doctors.”

Evidence from the Child Poverty Commission’s latest report, ‘Elitist Britain?’, starkly illustrates the need for a broader range of people entering those professions and more, with 75% of judges, 59% of the cabinet and 47% of newspaper columnists having attended an Oxbridge university. As well as a postgraduate qualification often being the key to prestigious careers, it can also boost salary. A Sutton Trust report last year put this ‘postgraduate premium’ as up to £200,000 over a lifetime of earning. 

The Russell Group scheme was one of 20 from 40 universities across the country awarded £25m of funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England last year. In the first hint of an admission from government that more needed to be done to address the slump in demand, participating institutions have developed a range of pilot schemes to remove barriers to postgraduate study, including scholarship offers, fee waivers, courses co-delivered with employers and initiatives to encourage under-represented groups, such as the women in engineering scholarship at Brunel University. Eighty female engineering students started on that scheme last month, with 120 having applied. 

Innovative new methods of funding are also being trialled, including Cranfield University’s Postgraduate Loan Scheme which is to offer 100 loans each year to UK and EU students enrolled on full-time technology-based MSc courses to cover tuition and maintenance. The idea is that repayments will be invested back into the scheme to keep it affordable to future students.
Speaking at the time of its announcement, Sir Peter Gregson, chief executive and vice-chancellor of Cranfield University said:  “Progression into taught postgraduate study greatly improves job prospects. Currently, fewer than 10 per cent of graduates in the UK continue onto engineering and technology Masters degrees so Cranfield is proud to launch this scheme to help candidates with potential, but without funding, to improve their future careers.”

Durham University are carrying out a feasibility study into the prospect of developing what would be the country’s first university credit union, which a university spokesperson says would represent “a sustainable solution to postgraduate study for those who may not ordinarily be able to afford the course fees.”

£1m of funding could be ploughed into the scheme to get it up and running. “The credit union will be an innovative funding model supported by staff, students and alumni of the University and will become self-financing over time,” said the spokesperson. 

But the brains behind the Russell Group scholarships are clear that the government must now act as these creative fixes won’t be sufficient to arrest the decline in participation from home students. 

Professor Paul White, deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Sheffield, said: “This offer has flagged up huge demand for postgraduate study and now we hope that the Government and employers will respond with action and funding. 

“If these career opportunities are barred to students from less affluent backgrounds due to cost, it would be a tragedy for our country and a waste of the talent we need in society as a whole. We had the demand to award another £6m.”

There are signs that the government are waking up to this growing crisis. In this year’s budget it was announced that “to ensure the UK can compete successfully in the global economy, the government will investigate options to support increasing participation in postgraduate studies.” The chancellor George Osborne is expected to lay out some fresh plans for postgraduate funding in his Autumn Statement in December. There are sure to be at least 1,700 people tuning in, hoping for some good news.