" We could see some astronomical upfront fees being levied on those who wish to continue their studies beyond undergraduate level, with virtually no financial support from government."- Aaron Porter, NUS President 2010-2011
Students were rioting in the streets over rises in undergraduate fees in England and yet under the radar, fees for Master's and other postgraduate taught courses have been rising significantly. As universities reel from the loss of 80% of their teaching grant, they will need to somehow plug the funding gap and for many the postgraduate market, as well as international student recruitment, are obvious places to look to raise income.
With postgraduate fees uncapped, universities are now looking to see how much income they could generate from students in order to keep themselves afloat. Logical though it may seem, this puts institutions in a very awkward place. On the one hand, temptation to increase tuition fees would be advantageous to make up for lost revenue from the government. On the other, any question of pricing based on quality and satisfaction rather than on how much the market can bear will be thrown even further into the wind.
In turn, this will increasingly raise questions of how much a Master's degree is 'worth', and indeed whether it is 'worth' taking out commercial loans- the only option available to many- which have to be repaid soon after completing one's course. Ultimately, if institutions raise their postgraduate taught fees and should the government not introduce any funding or support system, UK postgraduate applicant numbers will plummet, and widening access will become an increasingly ignored, cursory detail. Increasing postgraduate fees, however, institutions will argue, is a necessity in order to maintain other cross-subsidised provisions.
We have already seen many institutions announce significant rises in their PGT fees. Being aware of such changes is key to imagining the future landscape of higher education altogether. Should higher education become a victim of circumstance resulting in a sustained drop in the number of undergraduate course applicants (this cycle has seen a 15% decrease thus far) due to debt aversion, the number applying to postgraduate study will fall even more sharply. If we accept the premise that the number of postgraduate students from the UK/EU, around 80,000, is 'rising only very slowly', according to CentreForum's Tim Leunig, it is necessary for the government to further invest in fairer funding mechanisms, to avoid fewer applicants.
As an aside, I would at this point reject the notion that students post-2012 will form a culture which sees high levels of debt as a fact of life, and who will therefore not be put off postgraduate study after already being around £37,000 in debt.
I reject absolutely the cost of postgraduate degrees being based on market mechanisms simply as botched attempts at keeping institutions open, just as I resent, but understand, institutions' raising undergraduate UK/EU fees. In both undergraduate and postgraduate cases what I resent more than the fees themselves is the government's lack of responsibility and indeed its dereliction of duty to students, to the national economy, and to society in not providing a progressive funding model which minimises the burden on students and institutions.
Should the current model continue, lack of fair access to postgraduate education will mean that the government and, by extension, public institutions will be doing society a disservice. After all postgraduate study is a discriminator in the job market which should not give unfair competitive advantage to those from traditionally non-debt averse backgrounds. Moreover, if the government is serious about boosting industry and about building a knowledge economy, it is inconceivable that it wouldn't want to further invest into a sector which would deliver vocationally relevant skills, which in turn would return the investment.
Ultimately institutions are having to set fees on the basis of widening access considerations, recruitment targets, (unfortunately) market indicators, quality, and, (hopefully) the necessity of providing courses as social goods. All the while concerning themselves with being financially solvent. If or when the priority shifts from one of these objectives to another, an opportunity cost will be borne. In a landscape where financial tenacity means remaining in existence, it is certain that market indicators will be the only, if not the most weighty, factor in the equation determining fees. As an unintended consequence, the ideal of widening access at postgraduate level will be shunted aside.
The government ought to see postgraduate education as an area for strategic investment, and must act by providing more support and funding mechanisms. The current system, without any public financial support or loan system, will become unsustainable as the rises in postgraduate fees begin to take effect. This coupled with rapidly increasing student debt in the new undergraduate fees environment will result in an increasingly socially exclusive postgraduate community, without major reform. It would, therefore, be just and indeed necessary for the government to provide a progressive student-loan system for postgraduate study.
In the meantime I hope institutions look to introducing hardship funds, as mine has and, where possible, generous bursary opportunities to try to ensure fair access to Master's courses. In principle this is not the ideal solution alone. The coalition government must ultimately complement these efforts should it decide to positively reform part of the HE sector... which, indeed, would be a first.
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