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Changes to Postgraduate Study Support Must Not Be an Opportunity Missed

26/01/2015 15:59 GMT | Updated 28/03/2015 09:59 GMT

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When the Government revealed plans in the 2014 Autumn Statement to introduce a major overhaul of postgraduate funding in England, the news was greeted with cautious optimism by the higher education sector.

There has long been a need to address inequalities in access to postgraduate study and whilst there has been much focus on the role of undergraduate entry on social mobility it is postgraduate opportunities that are fast becoming the barrier to progression. In an increasingly competitive race for employment, postgrad qualifications can spell the difference between inclusion on a job shortlist and a CV being unceremoniously moved to the trash folder. However this is an area around which we have much less clarity on factors influencing participation and barriers to entry.

Therefore, George Osbourne's proposal to make government-backed student loans of up to £10,000 available to those undertaking postgrad master's degrees seemed a welcome boost to a struggling and yet core aspect of the UK's knowledge economy. This focus on postgraduate study is vital if we are to progress social mobility whilst also to ensuring we are able to provide individuals with the knowledge and skills required by the UK so our aspiration to lead the knowledge economy is realised.

When the announcement was made, myself and others welcomed the overhaul as a much needed balm to a damaged system - but given the current lack of information around the need to support these two priorities based around both individual and economic requirements I urged careful consideration of how it is implemented. It would appear that some of the concerns myself and colleagues had may be coming to fruition.

Of the proposals unveiled in the Autumn statement, the most glaring problem is that they are only available to students under 30 years of age. We know that application for postgraduate study often occurs within seven years of completing an undergraduate award hence for those entering university early in their career the age limit may seem reasonable. But many students may wish to gain further qualifications later in life and indeed as jobs continue to change we need to be encouraging more mature students back into study if we are to capitalise on their experience. At London South Bank University for example more than a third of our total student population is aged over 30 and would be ineligible for the new loans. It is important that any future model removes such an arbitrary barrier to support.

Even if you take the view that the money should be earmarked for younger students only, the Treasury's autumn statement document revealed that the postgraduate loans would be repaid "concurrently" with undergraduate borrowing. The Institute for Fiscal Studies warned that borrowers will have upwards of 50% of their salary deducted when they repay if they are on the basic tax-rate (20 % income tax, plus 12% NI, plus 9% repayment of undergraduate loan, plus 9% repayment of postgraduate loan). I fear that the only young people who will be able to consider such eye-watering repayments are those who need the money the least. Whilst I understand the concerns about the system of undergraduate loans it is of interest that those signing up to a four year undergraduate course would be funded for the full four years - yet those wishing to do a three year course and a masters (four years in total) would need to take out two concurrent loans. Surely if we believe in the need for a workforce engaged with postgraduate study we should be looking at an equitable allocation for any individual? If the funding system is not sustainable then we need to look at the system holistically rather than is this piecemeal manner.

Offering very little incentive to bright students from poorer backgrounds to continue their studies and excluding mature students from support packages will not address social mobility or the needs of business and the professions yet these are key aims that the government has cited as driving funding changes.

It has not yet been made clear where the £1.5 billion total loan outlay over the first four years of the scheme will come from, and many are now nervous that the decision to include EU students as being eligible for the funds could increase the cost of loan write-offs. With the UK gazing into a huge black hole as the estimated portion of undergraduate student loans that will never be repaid grows, it is vital that a practical - and sustainable - system is introduced next year. This needs to review the overall funding for people wishing to access higher education rather than sticking plaster approaches based on variations to a model that is recognised as needing review.