Postgraduates need a better deal

You are clever, exotically international, and there are more of you than ever before. You contribute billions of pounds a year to the British economy. The trouble is, nobody cares. Or at least they did not until just a few weeks ago, when policymakers finally seemed to wake up to the idea that someone should start thinking about postgraduates.

Amid all the kerfuffle about the future of higher education — Lord Browne's review of fees, the government's white paper, the dire warnings of universities going bust or being taken over by profit-hungry capitalists — postgraduates occupied barely a footnote. They did have their very own report, by Adrian Smith, in 2010 but it sort of got forgotten, such was the excitement of a change of government and disputes over the more radical proposals for undergraduates.

But, to the surprise even of those who have been gamely trying to push postgraduate heads above the parapet for years, all this has begun to change.

First, Smith's review group was briefly reconvened to discuss the likely impact on postgraduates of the new undergraduate fee system. Then, early in July, came the announcement of an independent inquiry on behalf of the higher education commission, a cross-party group of MPs and representatives from business and academia, to look into how postgraduates could contribute to the knowledge economy.

The group's chairman, IBM's Graham Spittle, says: "So much attention has been on undergraduates yet nobody has really thought structurally and strategically about what we should be doing with postgraduates, and what the effect of these undergraduate changes are going to be on them."

He says the commission, which is due to report next year, will look at the contribution of postgraduate education to the UK economy and the competition it faces from emerging economies. It will also look at access and funding.

"I do think there's an urgency to this," he says. "As soon as we have a coherent picture, we want to make some pretty firm recommendations."

Even more significant for those rooting for postgraduate education are new promises of cash. For the first time, universities are to receive extra government money specifically for taught postgraduate courses. They will get £1 100 a student starting one of these courses in the next academic year, except in those arts and humanities disciplines that are cheapest to run.

This means they will in effect be cushioned from cuts in funding to undergraduate courses — which are expected to make up the shortfall through student fees, paid for by ­student loans.

The big bone of contention is that postgraduate courses remain outside any loan system. Whereas undergraduates can merrily fork out up to £9 000 a year for their degrees, safe in the knowledge that they have 30 years to pay it back and that if they have not done it by then the debt will disappear, most postgraduates have to butter up friends, family and the bank manager to scrape together the cost of their course. And these debts are the kind that remain until every penny is paid off.

Employers once offered to support staff wishing to do postgraduate study, but many have cut back on sponsorships because of the recession. About six in 10 taught postgraduate students receive no support for their studies other than family or commercial loans. And even banks have become more reluctant to take on the risk of lending to postgraduates who may or may not turn out to be the next Bill Gates.

The big worry is, with undergraduates paying higher tuition fees from this year, it is likely that universities will want to start charging postgraduates more too.

Malcolm McCrae, who until last month chaired the UK Council for Graduate Education, says universities have felt in limbo on the question of what to do about postgraduate fees. A Times Higher Education analysis of this year's fees found the average British and European Union fee for taught postgraduates was just under £6 184, a 24% rise from the previous year but still well below the average £8 354 institutions are expected to start charging undergraduates in September.

McCrae says he cannot see how a university could justify charging taught postgraduates less, when their courses run for more weeks and at a higher level.

The financial squeeze has already led to a growth in the number of postgrads studying part-time and working while they take their degree. But McCrae fears many UK students will duck out of postgraduate education altogether and choose to go straight into the jobs market instead.

A survey by High Fliers Research last month found that employers are increasingly keen on work experience, with more than a third of graduate vacancies likely to be filled by those who have worked for the company to which they are applying.

Although the number of postgraduates studying in UK higher education institutions leapt by 36% between 1997 and 2009, and is still growing, this growth is largely among international students. In those 12 years, the numbers from European Union countries rose by 69%, and from non-EU countries by a whopping 155%.

"The government sees postgraduate activity in universities as a success story," says McCrae. "But the success part of it is largely overseas recruitment rather than home recruitment. Are we looking forward to the prospect of training people for the knowledge economy everywhere in the world, just not doing it for our own?"

Tim Leunig, chief economist at the think-tank CentreForum and a reader in economic history at the London School of Economics, has proposed a new loan system for postgraduate students to try to redress this imbalance.

He argues that countries with the highest levels of educational qualifications tend to be the most successful, and that it is therefore vital to increase the number of UK students studying at postgraduate level and to ensure this level of education is open to disadvantaged groups.

"If all these foreigners want to do postgraduate degrees here, shouldn't we be thinking of why British kids don't want to be doing them too?" he says.

Leunig believes this should be a key part of Spittle's inquiry, and Spittle agrees. Postgraduates, he says, will be key to Britain's future: "As the world becomes more competitive, there is evidence to show that where formerly a first degree was what was required, people are looking for higher qualifications." — © Guardian News and Media 2012

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