Lending support to postgraduates

The higher education landscape has changed since I left home and set off to university 20 years ago. As a fresher in 1996, I qualified for a maintenance grant and a student loan but I still needed a part-time job to cover my living costs. I worked hard and played hard: undergraduate life was good!

I can’t remember exactly when I began to harbour aspirations for a PhD but I think it was during my sandwich placement because I spent the first term of my final undergraduate year polishing my CV and writing to potential PhD supervisors.

I visited several research groups across the country before accepting an offer to do my PhD in the lab where I’d done my dissertation project. I was given one of a small number of studentships funded by the university department. It covered my fees and a stipend, equivalent in value to a Research Council studentship.

Fast forward to 2016, and higher education reform has made the world a very different place. I wonder what decision I would make if I was a final-year student now: would I go on to do my PhD or would I try to get a graduate job? I wonder if my young daughters will one day go to university and, if so, how will they/we afford it?

Motivation vs reward

Changes to university funding and fees mean that students now graduate with higher levels of student debt, and this may influence their decisions about whether to seek employment or further study.

We know from the Intentions After Graduation Survey that 13 per cent of graduates in 2013 intended to study for a postgraduate qualification. But six months later, only just over half of those who intended to were actually engaged in postgraduate studies.

Many students say that course fees and finance affect their decisions about further study.

And this could be a problem for postgraduate education, because 72 per cent of masters students and 38 per cent of doctoral students are self-funded – that is, they receive no financial backing.

The Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey has found that students are motivated to study for a postgraduate qualification for a variety of reasons, including: to improve their employment prospects; to progress in their career; for personal interest; and to be able to progress to a higher-level qualification, such as a PhD. For research students, personal interest is the greatest motivation, followed by a desire to improve their career prospects, according to the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey.

From a policy perspective, there is evidence to show that postgraduate study brings benefits to individuals and the UK as a whole. These include a variety of personal, social and cultural factors as well as increased earnings, higher employment and improvements for the economy. There is a clear incentive for graduates to aspire towards higher-level skills and postgraduate education.

But, while motivation is high, there are risks and concerns around financial barriers to progression from undergraduate to postgraduate study, and issues of fair access and social mobility.

Financial support for postgraduate study

The Postgraduate Support Scheme (PSS) funded a range of projects to increase the accessibility of taught postgraduate study and support national priorities in supplying high-level skills. It showed the demand for postgraduate study and gave proof of concept for innovative mechanisms of student support. Many students said that they would not have been able to enrol without the offer of a scholarship; but some were unable to enrol because, even with financial support, they couldn’t make up the difference in fees and living costs.

So, the Government is introducing a masters loan scheme to support postgraduate students. From 2016-17, loans of up to £10,000 will be available for full-time masters courses of one to two years duration, including taught, distance-learning, research and professional courses across all disciplines. Students under 60 years old will be eligible to apply for the loans, which will be administered by the Student Loans Company.

These masters loans will offer a source of financial support to students who otherwise could not afford to undertake postgraduate study. Given the proportion of postgraduate students who are currently self-funded, this should be welcome news.

However, individuals’ appetite to take on further student debt remains to be seen. And how will this help students from disadvantaged backgrounds? As the PSS showed, the availability of loans will not be enough for some students. A combination of financial and non-financial support will be needed if we are to narrow the participation gap and improve social mobility.

Looking forward

Reflecting on my own motivation and personal experience, I think I would still have been motivated to do postgraduate study even if it meant taking on more debt. As a fledgling biochemist, I saw a future for myself in rational drug design, probably working for a large pharmaceutical company. Gaining a PhD was the obvious next step along my chosen career path. And, even though I decided towards the end of my studies that being a researcher was not for me, my PhD remains one of the greatest influences on my career and life choices.

Now that I work for HEFCE as a Policy Adviser on postgraduate research, I hope that those who aspire to postgraduate study will find the means and opportunity to do so.

And should my daughters want to do a masters or a PhD when they are older, I want them to be able to pursue their academic interests without worrying (too much) about the financial burden.