Universities UK have released a report this week asking how we can increase the number of students undertaking postgraduate taught courses.

The fact is that the number of UK students starting a postgraduate course in the UK fell by 17% from 2009-10 whilst it is widely noted that postgraduate taught courses (PGT) education brings wide-ranging benefits: individual graduates gain improved life chances and a greater opportunity to realise their potential; the economy benefits as postgraduates bring high-level skills into the workforce, and have increased earnings potential; and society benefits from increased social mobility as graduates pursue their careers in a wide range of professions.

As well as the fall from UK students, the number of postgraduate entrants from the rest of the EU peaked in 2010-11 before falling by 8% while the number of non-EU entrants peaked in the same year and then fell by 4%. 

Students fund their courses through a wide range of sources with most meeting some or all of the costs from private sources. There is a risk that some potential students are not able to meet the costs and are missing out on the opportunity and benefit offered by a postgraduate course, and hence the challenge is to find funding solutions that are affordable to all.

Because of the implications for the supply of postgraduate-level skills to the economy, the recent decline is of concern for the government, UK universities and society at large, and one way to increase the number of postgraduate students would be to find alternative methods of funding. 

The Funding Challenge, therefore, looks into UK domiciled students. In looking at UK students there are two main challenges. Firstly, postgraduate students are made up of a diverse population, including 49% studying part-time in 2012-13 and in the same year 65% studying as mature students, defined as being aged 25 or over. Secondly, the subjects studied is diverse, from education, health, business, law, the social sciences and sciences with UK students most likely to undertake a PGT course in either subjects allied to medicine (87%) or education (92%). 

Furthermore, the reasons why people choose to enter onto a postgraduate course are many and include: improving their employment prospects; progressing in current career paths; enabling students to progress to a higher level qualification; or to change one’s current career. Hence, PGT students undertake their degrees at different stages in their lives and with different expectations about their future plans. 

72.3% of full-time and 62% of part-time Master’s degree students receive no financial award while those most able to access loans were those on teacher training courses, additionally showing that some subjects are much better funded than others. 

A small proportion of PGT students take out a Professional Career Development Loan, a bank loan with a conventional fixed-term repayment periods and commercial rates of interest. The maximum loan is £10,000 and the interest rate is 9.9%. Around 9,000 individuals took out a PCDL in 2011-12 and the total lent was £67 million. 

Additionally, between 2007-08 and 2012-13 the number of full-time Master’s students receiving a scholarship or fee waiver from their university increased by about 45% suggesting that universities have generally been increasing their financial support for UK full-time Master’s students in recent years. 

At the same time, the number of part-time UK Master’s students receiving funding support from employers has decreased by 41% which is another reason why we’ve seen a decline in the overall uptake of Master’s.

As Master’s courses benefit individuals, the economy and society there is a need to help with upfront costs through universities, government, banks, employers and philanthropic enterprises via more diverse schemes. We already have some systems in place, but what is the best way to increase the levels of Master’s students in the UK? 

The Funding Challenge note that costs need to be offered to fulfill three criteria:

  • stimulating student demand
  • using public funding to target areas of greatest need
  • providing sufficient funding so universities can deliver high quality provision on a financially sustainable basis

Proposals generally include loans, for example Centre Forum have suggested an extension on the undergraduate loan whereby students with a 2.1 or higher at undergraduate level would be entitled to a loan of up to £10,000 which they would repay at a rate of 9% on earnings over a specified amount. Furthermore proposals differ in repayment models, income-contingency, and cost to the government etc. 

However, in creating loans, we would be quick to overlook other funding options. For example, providing scholarships stimulates students demand: BIS is currently co-funding a scheme with industry to provide aerospace MSc bursaries (£3 million each is being contributed by government and employers) and there may be a case for further investment in postgraduate education through scholarship in targeted areas.

There might, also, be a case for supporting innovation from the ground up, with universities taking the lead in identifying targets for investment. In this way, universities propose the targets for investment based on their knowledge of student demand in specific areas of the highly diverse PGT market.

In this way, there should be opportunities available for all UK students who wish to take up a PGT course, and these opportunities should not be restricted to those who can meet the full costs of studying upfront. As students undertake PGT courses at different stages in their working lives, it is unlikely that a one-size-fits-all model would be suitable.