THE BLOG

UK Postgraduates Must Not Become an Endangered Species

11/06/2014 12:07 BST | Updated 09/08/2014 10:59 BST

If there are lies, damned lies and statistics then the recently announced fact that only 26% of postgraduate places in UK universities are held by UK students can be spun as both a failure and a success.

It is a great achievement that we are able to attract the world's most talented young people in such large numbers. UK university campuses must be amongst the most international places on earth, with students from pretty much any country you can name drawn here by our reputation for challenging, rigorous, high quality teaching and learning. Education is a force for good that rightly transcends borders.

It would be disingenuous of me to pretend that international students are not a valuable commodity. Few, if any, UK universities could do without the fee income they bring in.

But I can say hand on heart that the worth of international students is far greater than their tuition fees. Creative problem solving, independent thinking and iconoclastic approaches depend on challenging assumptions, broadening knowledge and understanding, and looking at the world with new eyes. The diverse environment of a UK university is a fertile seed-bed for innovation.

And the knock on effects continue long after international students graduate and return home - our economy and international standing benefit enormously from the millions of former students around the world who are now leaders in their field, and retain a strong connection and affection for the UK.

Yet however internationally facing UK universities are and must remain, our success has been built on decades (in many cases, centuries) of UK public investment and we therefore have a fundamental obligation to serve this country - to develop home-grown talent, open up opportunities for young people, and underpin the UK's knowledge economy and competitive edge. So it must make us stop in our tracks that postgraduate education is now an option for so few people in the UK.

Many factors have gone into creating this situation, but the strongest one is undoubtedly funding. Unlike undergraduates, postgraduate students do not have access to any dedicated system of loans and funding, and must find their own ways to cover tuition fees and cost of living. The sharp rise in undergraduate debt caused by the tripling of tuition fees will inevitably make young people think twice about going on to further study, meaning that we can expect to see the proportion of UK students on postgraduate courses fall even further.

Postgraduate study is when the real high-fliers shine, when they deepen their knowledge and understanding, build their networks and, in the case of arts and design in particular, establish their practice and direction. It is also in many cases the start of an academic career, which is reason enough in itself to worry about the narrowing availability of postgraduate education. The big drive of recent decades has been to democratise higher education, so that it is available to everyone with the ability to benefit from it, regardless of social or economic background. Young people without a family history of university are often intimidated by our institutions, and are reassured to see 'people like me' amongst our academic staff - people with the same accent, cultural understandings, ethnic background. Reducing postgraduate opportunities directly reduces the diversity of our academic staff. Universities have made huge strides to become less elitist and exclusive. The prospect of watching that go into reverse is supremely depressing.

Universities can and must do a lot to make postgraduate education available to everyone with talent and ambition. Sourcing philanthropic funding for scholarships is a huge focus across the sector, and that must be matched by increasing the flexibility of postgraduate teaching so that students can balance it with paid work.

Ultimately, however, the UK government must take responsibility with a clear strategy and proper system of support for postgraduate education. And to those who ask whether we can afford it, I say - we cannot afford not to.