Will the New Postgraduate Loan Help Plug Our Skills Gap?

11/07/2016 12:22 | Updated 11 July 2016

Any English-resident, or EU national, under the age of 60 and looking to study for a Masters is now eligible for a student loan of up to £10,000.

Whether choosing a full time, part time or a distance learning course - it makes no difference. From June postgraduate students will, for the first time, be able to apply for financial support through the Student Loans Company.

The announcement, and corresponding opening of loan applications (online), was timely. Why? Because June was also home to the annual Festival of Learning (FoL) a movement dedicated to lifelong learning and encouraging students of all ages to fulfil their potential.

Given that this newly available form of financial support may well be the 'yes' or 'no' difference for many individuals - particularly mature, part time students - contemplating postgraduate study, it certainly fit with the Festival's ethos of inclusive access to education.

It also fits a national need for a more skilled and diverse workforce. Let me explain.

In 2013, the Intentions After Graduation Survey found that 13% of graduates intended to study for a postgraduate qualification. Six months after the report was published, only half took up this ambition. As Kate Turton from the HEFCE points out in this insightful piece, a key reason for this is likely to have been financial concern.

Intention and ambition have to be weighed against reality, and when that reality is bound up by monetary constraints - remember, until now individuals studying for a Masters had to fund their degrees through personal bank loans or bursaries - it isn't surprising that we've seen postgrad drop off.

And that's been a problem, not just for Higher Education but for the UK economy as a whole. Because postgrads have a distinct skills set that is incredibly valuable to business and innovation.

I'm not alone in this view. In fact a report produced back in 2012 by the Higher Education Commission first brought this worry to the fore but claiming that the UK's universities were failing to produce the highly skilled staff needed by a modern economy.

Graham Spittle, IBM's chief technology officer, was involved in the report and made the bold statement that "the postgraduate sector needs to be brought in from the cold and hardwired into the UK's strategy for economic growth".

More recently Michelle Sparkman-Renz, director of Research Communications at GMAC, pointed out that during times of economic recovery, employers need "seasoned MBA talent with the strategic skills to help them make decisions".

The reason postgrad students are so well regarded by economists, business leaders and education commentators is down to a number of factors but three in particular. Their research and reasoning skills are usually well developed; the combination of maturity and experience (academic and practical workplace) appeals in terms of employability; and finally the subjects they tend to study are often more applied or practical.

Innovative businesses want and need innovative thinkers. If they can't get them in the UK, they will (and currently do in many cases) look elsewhere i.e. beyond the UK, or even more worryingly, fail to fill key roles.

So, back to postgraduate loans. The theory goes that by making study more accessible to a wider age range, it will encourage more people to enrol on courses - people who may previously have found study cost prohibitive. It's a barrier breaker.

Well, it's a barrier breaker with strings attached. Don't get me wrong. I'm delighted that the new loan system has been introduced and I think it will make a big difference. Unlike personal loans, the government backed postgraduate loan will be accessible to more people and have the benefit of much lower interest rates and a set repayment level - 6% of income but only for those earning over £21,000.

But the true equation for boosting postgrad numbers such that it starts to help plug UK skills gaps requires additional support from other avenues.

For one, universities must play their part. Course development and provision needs to reflect modern world requirements: content that matches current practice and not outdated theory; delivery formats that offer flexibility - though many more institutions are offering evening study options, few seem to be embracing the full potential of online, part-time or blended offerings that give students greater freedom to fit higher education around their busy lives; and finally, courses developed in partnership with key industry bodies i.e. the bodies who know what employers are looking for.

It's also important that universities are more transparent about enrolment criteria. For example, highlighting where workplace experience is taken into account.

Businesses too must do their bit. Whether supporting and encouraging existing staff to develop their skills through postgraduate study, or through focussed external recruitment drives in partnership with UK universities, the message has to be run up the flagpole that individuals will be developed and rewarded for pursuing qualifications.

The message has to be that home-grown innovators, business thinkers, and leaders of tomorrow have a future with leading UK organisations.

And let's not forget the constant term in this particular equation, students. The new loans scheme will help many but it won't appeal to all, which is why it is vitally important that students are aware of, and remain alert to, other opportunities. Scholarships, bursaries, employer education programmes - it's important to remember that these options haven't been replaced by the new loan, they remain viable avenues for funding further study.

Students also need to keep providers on their toes, pushing for progress and postgrad provision that meets their expectations of quality which, in today's world, is also an expectation of employability in many respects.

The introduction of the postgrad student loan is a massive step forward for students, higher education and the UK. If we just take care to nurture other pieces of the puzzle, it can also be a massive stepping stone to widespread skills development.