Last week the Institute for Public Policy Research published proposals to establish a subsidised student loan system for postgraduate study. This is a welcome addition to the debate about postgraduate funding.

As ever, it is worthwhile spending some time unpicking the figures in the report to understand the potential impact on students and the Government.  Its assumptions about earnings and the financial burden on graduates during their early years of employment require particular scrutiny.

But the proposal for a £10,000 contribution, to which institutions and students could align other sources of finance, is sound.  A contribution of this kind would help to fill the taught postgraduate finance gap, particularly for students progressing directly from undergraduate education.

What does the evidence tell us?

The report adds to a body of evidence (see the list of reports below) we have helped to build since the 2012 reforms to higher education.

We’re using this evidence to refine our own approach to postgraduate funding and to advise Government.

So what have we found?  Here are a few key facts:

  • Numbers for taught masters

    Following a peak of 160,000 in 2009-10, UK taught master’s numbers have dipped back to their 2007-08 level of 140,000.

    Part-time study has particularly declined.

  • Source of finance  

    72 per cent of master’s students have no source of finance for their studies.  

  • Finance as an obstacle 

    Among students who indicate that they are unsure, unlikely to, or definitely will not, enter postgraduate education, 62 per cent cite course fees and 44 per cent the overall cost of living as the key factors.

    64 per cent indicate additional financial support could change their mind.

  • Participation by area

    For students with a 2:1 – which can be a threshold for entry – the transition rate from undergraduate to master’s education by students from the lowest participation neighbourhoods is 7 per cent, compared with 9 per cent for the highest participation neighbourhoods.

    This gap appears to be widening.  These are students who are already three times less likely to enter undergraduate education – so it compounds an existing social mobility problem.

  • The importance of taught postgraduate

    In addition to the established evidence on the wage premium for postgraduate study and its role as a route into the professions, our analysis suggests that 56 per cent of postgraduate research students now enter with a master’s degree, compared with 33 per cent a decade ago.

    So taught postgraduate education is an increasingly important pipeline to research careers. It provides the training that is needed in many areas before moving on to independent research.

What’s the appropriate response?

This evidence demands a response but it is essential to work with the grain of the current open and dynamic taught postgraduate system.

That means avoiding any increase in regulation or capping of activity. Any government contribution should also leverage – rather than replace – the investments made by individuals, institutions and employers.

HEFCE’s Postgraduate Support Scheme may also help to inform the response. The scheme is piloting different models of student finance and other ways of stimulating progression to taught postgraduate education during 2014-15.

Early findings from the scheme appear to show:

  • there is latent or frustrated demand for taught postgraduate study
  • financial contributions – which do not necessarily need to cover all of the costs -are successful in addressing this
  • loan finance has a material role to play in supporting taught postgraduate students
  • supply-side innovation, particularly partnership between institutions and co-funding employers, will also be important; as will the development of more joined-up institutional strategies for taught postgraduate education.

These will be key considerations as we consider future funding during the coming weeks and months.

Relevant reports

  1. Reaching higher: Reforming student loans to broaden access to postgraduate study (IPPR report)
  2. Postgraduate Education in England and Northern Ireland: Overview Report 2013 (HEFCE 2013/14)
  3. Intentions After Graduation Survey (HEFCE 2013/34)
  4. Trends in Transition from First Degree to Postgraduate Study (HEFCE 2013/13)
  5. Overview of Postgraduate Education 2014
  6. International Comparisons in Postgraduate Education
  7. Understanding the Recruitment and Selection of Postgraduate Research Students by English HEIs