Taught Postgraduates: The Real Squeezed Middle

19/11/2012 10:49 GMT | Updated 16/01/2013 10:12 GMT

The Higher Education Commission's (HEC) report into Postgraduate Education was a welcome intervention into a much-ignored part of the higher education sector. For too long the issues around taught postgraduate courses have been caught in the 'squeezed middle' between undergraduate funding and doctoral level research. However, with the UK's long term economic prospects likely to be determined by the skill levels of its workforce, it is high time postgraduate study received some attention. As a country we need to ensure we have healthy numbers of people educated to postgraduate level by allowing access to postgraduate courses to all who have the right talent and aptitude.

As the numbers of people educated to graduate level have grown it has become more important than ever for employers to be able to identify those who can add value to their organisations. This was brought home to me recently, as I sifted through over 150 applications for two (paid), internships with the 1994 Group. The quality of applicant was uniformly high, with good degrees and extra-curricula achievement spelled out on every CV. The applicants shortlisted for interview however, were those able to demonstrate both higher order skills and a more well-grounded ability to work on their own - virtues inherent in postgraduate study. This level of competition for a temporary internship points to the challenges faced by employers offering full time positions. Postgraduate education has become the key point of differentiation for the brightest and the best to mark themselves out from the crowd.

While we can't afford to erode the value of postgraduate qualifications through over-ubiquity, it is absolutely vital to ensure that postgraduate opportunities aren't limited to just those with the private financial means to stay on. With more than 75% of students in France going on to study a Masters within two years of completing their Bachelors degree and more than 50% in Germany, compared to fewer than 10% in England, we are in danger of falling behind as a nation.

Part of the reason for the UK's relative shortfall in postgraduates is that the lack of a funding system for UK students has forced institutions to expand international numbers to keep courses financially viable. As the HEC report showed, the expansion in the number of students studying at Masters in the last 15 years has been primarily based on international students while the number of UK students staying on to do masters courses has flat lined in recent years. This is hardly surprising when you consider that in contrast to undergraduate degrees masters courses require upfront fees, with the only route to finance for those without a nest egg being through commercial bank loans.

It is a problem only likely to get worse. With the first students in England paying the full £9,000 undergraduate fees now entering university we still don't have a plan in place to ensure that these students aren't put off applying for masters courses in 2015 by their increased levels of "debt". We need to do more than just hope that these students will have understood the loan repayment system.

For a start we need an affordable postgraduate student support system that ensures the best students have the ability to progress whatever their financial means. Putting pressure on banks to improve the terms of Career Development Loans will play a part in this, as will leveraging in employer sponsorship - possibly through tax breaks. But these alone will not be enough to open postgraduate access for the most talented students facing the greatest financial barriers. Public funding - either through grants or subsidised loans - has to be part of the answer. We agree with the HE Commission that there should be additional public investment in higher education, although we do of course recognise that public funds for universities are finite and so increased support for postgraduate study may have to come from elsewhere. It is widely accepted that sustained investment in research is paramount to driving the innovations needed for economic success as well as maintaining the global prestige of UK higher education. We may therefore need to look again at other parts of the BIS budget as a way of shifting round funding. We must be prepared to do this with an open mind with all options on the table.

Postgraduate study is emerging as an imperative for universities looking to maintain a pipeline of research talent, individuals seeking a competitive advantage in the jobs market, and a country looking to high skills to drive economic growth. Every option needs to be on the table to make sure we don't get left behind by restricting opportunity to the few able to afford postgraduate courses.

Alex Bols is Executive Director of the 1994 Group