What future for postgraduate education?
"Taught postgraduate degrees may soon be preserve of the rich," is the headline of a story by Simon Cowan in today’s Times Higher Education.
It is not difficult to see why. As with the Dearing Review in 1997 that first recommended the introduction of undergraduate student fees, so with the Browne Review, postgraduate taught education and its funding receives little comment.
However, that report was written in the context of a generally flat rate of postgraduate fees—except for some premium courses, such as MBAs, etc, and some institutions such as London School of Economics that have charged all students at an overseas student rate. This fee has typically been below that of the aggregate currently paid per annum for an undergraduate degree: Higher Education Funding Council for England grant per student plus student contribution. We must expect that fees for postgraduate taught degrees, where they are currently below that of undergraduate degrees, will rise to match the new undergraduate fee regime. That is, that they will be set in the range of £6,000 to £9,000.
The Smith Report, Postgraduate Education: One Step Beyond, showed that, alongside a graduate earnings premium for undergraduate degrees, there was also an earnings premium for postgraduate qualifications. With student indebtedness from undergraduate degrees set to rise, we can expect many more students to be unable to take on an extra year of postgraduate education for which there is no available funding through the kind of system of support soon to be available for undergraduate studies.
It is significant that the section (7.4) of the Browne Review Report that dealt with postgraduate funding concluded in line with the Smith Report: “We have seen no evidence that the absence of student support in the taught postgraduate market has had a detrimental impact on access to postgraduate education. In the evidence that has been presented to us, we do see that participation in postgraduate education by higher socio-economic groups is higher than for others; however, it is reasonable to suppose that access to postgraduate education is a function of the socio-economic make up of the undergraduate population – where the same trend exists – rather than anything else” (page 55).
This is both disingenuous and dishonest. The Browne Review declined to reflect upon the impact of its own recommendations that would substantially increase the volume of student debt and would also introduce differential fees. It is precisely those students most affected by indebtedness from their undergraduate degrees—students whose parents are unable to pay—who will be excluded from postgraduate education. As the government creates a system in which higher education becomes a positional good, so other consequences emerge, namely credentialism and the pressure to compete with others through ever-higher qualifications where the ability to pay becomes what really distinguishes people.
John Holmwood is professor of sociology at the University of Nottingham.