There is no hotter topic in education at the moment than postgraduates. Traditionally, the level of tuition fees for postgraduate courses has tracked that of the undergraduates—but while the tripling of undergrad fees will have no real effect on them because of the repayment system, it comes down full force upon postgraduates, who (excepting teaching and nursing) are stuck with paying up front or taking out astronomical commercial loans.
It’s only in the past couple of months, with a new and ‘urgent’ HEC review being announced (to report in June), that the squeezed postgrad sector is getting the attention it deserves.
In a piece in the Guardian in February, Don Nutbeam, Southampton’s Vice-Chancellor, called for the UK to emulate the Australian system of postgraduate loans administered under that country’s Higher Education Loans Programme (HELP). The Australian system is straightforward: once a student has used up his entitlement to undergraduate loans, whatever that might be, he is then able to draw on the postgraduate fund at any time during his life, including when coming back to study after a period in the workforce.
A call for evidence for the new review invites comparisons with overseas systems.
Though many will ask where all the money will come from, and many more will point out that Australia has not been hit as hard by the recession as the northern hemisphere, if the loan system works for undergraduates, why should it not work for the small additional number of postgraduates too? Australia has seen a rise in participation of 12% from 2005 to 2010 because of this scheme.
The UK’s postgraduate sector, by contrast, is only growing because of the number of rich international students who are able to pay for it—an increase of 155% (that’s 255% raw) from 1997 to 2009 has largely fuelled the UK’s overall 36% expansion over that time period.
Sir Adrian Smith’s 2010 review, One Step Beyond, concluded that postgrads’ skills were critical for the knowledge economy. However, a little thing called the Browne review sort of overshadowed this, making only a couple of passing mentions to those who would lose out most from its recommendations. As postgrad places at British universities move out of the reach of British students, and into the hands of those well-off international students who can afford it, we are training other countries’ knowledge economies at the expense of our own.
For their part, some British postgraduates these days are targeting the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and elsewhere in Europe where the usual cost is anywhere between free and £3,000; but just as many are simply opting to go straight into the world of work, especially as work experience becomes more and more valued by cautious employers. Despite the fact that a fair few courses are taught in English, many who would otherwise have gone to Europe have no language skills for practical purposes such as finding accommodation.
Nutbeam’s show of commitment to postgraduate study is good news for the University—as a research-led institution, our reputation depends on attracting undergrads into further study here in Southampton.