Postgraduate education is on life support and Britain will soon start haemorrhaging the students so vital to the country's economy, a students' leader is warning.
Luke James, postgraduate studies officer for the National Union of Students (NUS) does not mince his words. His message to the government is clear: either provide financial help to Britain's brightest, or lose them to countries offering education for a pittance.
Postgraduate students are unable to study in Britain due to the 'scandalous' lack of financial support
"Students are being forced to study abroad because for many, studying in Britain is simply not a choice," he tells The Huffington Post UK.
"In the Netherlands for instance, you'll pay £1,000 to go to one of the top universities in Europe. France, it's €230 for a masters course and €350 per year for a PhD. Across Scandinavia it's mostly free for those inside the EU.
"Britain is going to start haemorrhaging students unless the government does something about it."
And James is not alone in his exasperation at the sector's lack of funding. One student the HuffPost UK spoke told of his "anger, but more than that, deep disappointment" at what appears to be a simple case of discrimination on the grounds of wealth.
But no-one illustrates James's argument better than Luke Sandford, a York University graduate who was keen to continue his higher education.
"I looked at courses at the London School of Economics, which were around £17,000, as well as other good universities, which were charging anywhere from £5,000 to £15,000." he told HuffPost UK. "I had a friend who was at the LSE but had to drop out for financial reasons and I didn't want to risk that happening to me."
Sandford is now enrolled in a masters at Leiden University in the Netherlands, which is ranked well globally and has a good reputation. His one-year MSc is costing him €1,447.
"The cost difference is huge and financial support is limited," Sandford adds. "I was only able to take the year I am now because I have that job waiting for me (unusual for today's graduates) and because of family support."
Sandford said he believes the UK government should provide the same financial support for postgraduate students as it does for undergraduates.
"The UK economy is increasingly reliant on highly educated workers developing high tech industries," he adds. "With postgraduate qualification fairly common in Europe the government needs to be encouraging UK nationals to study further, not try and slow them down.
"The cost burden on the government this would impose is not inconsiderable, but it must be framed as an investment in people rather than money for nothing."
The government has already been issued several warnings; in January 2012 the 1994 Group said the sector was facing an "emergency crisis" after being neglected by politicians for years. In October the same year, a major study by the Higher Education Commission revealed higher tuition fees and a lack of money were deterring graduates from continuing their studies, contributing to a shortage of highly skilled workers.
Sandford's story highlights the case for postgraduate funding, which James says will remove the barriers many students are currently facing.
"The NUS campaign [launched in October 2012] has gathered a lot of speed this year. Postgraduate education is in an emergency state; it's on life support. Our proposal takes it off life support and resuscitates the sector.
"It's a starting point for public investment in higher education which takes down barriers for all students, wherever they come from, whatever their background and age.
"There are lots of examples of people totally locked out of education, which is incredibly short-sighted of the government to continue to allow," James adds.
One of those students facing a locked door is Ben Whittingham. A soon-to-be university graduate, who has his sights set on becoming an academic, he says he is angry and "deeply disappointed" at the government because of the difficulties he is now facing in order to fund himself through his postgraduate degree.
"I believe that education is a right not a privilege. We tell ourselves that ours is a land of opportunity, but I cannot but help feeling that that's perfectly true when it comes to some of our society and not for others," he says. "Whether we rationalise that in terms of class or background, ultimately we're seeing discrimination on the grounds of wealth, and as a civilised society we really should be beyond that."
Whittingham says he is "simply unable" to finance his second degree. "I find myself in the position of a few friends and colleagues of potentially being barred [from furthering my studies] because of my financial situation.
"Some postgraduate courses are affordable but I can't move too far away from home due to a family illness. As a result, I have to pursue study in an institution that has cheaper fees but doesn't necessarily fit my area of interest.
"Through the current system of postgraduate funding a working class student is being cut off from further study and is being blocked from a profession that by all accounts I'm capable of pursuing," he adds.
According to the NUS' Luke James, "the barriers facing students who want to pursue education further are becoming more obvious to everyone, including top policy makers.
"Education is a boost to people, communities and to the economy, which is why I think people from all sides of the political spectrum are now waking up to the disaster which is postgraduate financing."
James adds, however, it is not just home-grown students who are suffering. "A huge number of Britain's postgraduate students are international. And those students are not getting a good deal. They are being squeezed for every penny they've got.
"Thankfully many of their governments realise the importance of investment in their students and they're paying for them to study here." In contrast, as James reminds us, to the British government who are not.
"There is a huge number of home students unable to access postgraduate courses alongside their international counterparts."
Which is, he adds, in a phrase summing up the entirety of the state of postgraduate finances, "absolutely scandalous".
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