"There's never been a better time to do a Masters", boasted the email from the University Politics Office about the new funding scheme. The announcement explained there would be "a significant number of scholarships worth £10,000 each" for current undergrads starting any Masters in 2015. On the brink of giving up "lofty" dreams about postgraduate education, I read the email with relief. Any sense of ease didn't last long though. Further on, the email revealed the new Postgraduate Support Scheme (PSS) would be open only to students paying the higher tuition fees since 2012. That means all undergrads taking a four-year degree and anyone whose circumstances have forced them to retake a year are excluded.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) are co-founders of the scheme. Their Advisor, Julian Davies explained to me it was "government policy that these awards be available for those who have paid the higher tuition fees from 2012". But the restriction demands us to ask: Why is the Government targeting only this narrow cohort of students?
The prospect of eye-watering student debt deterring those from disadvantaged backgrounds is a debate that has continued since tuition fees were raised in 2012. The argument proved itself in many British universities when the number of postgraduate applications fell sharply following the fee rises. There were almost 16,000 fewer British students starting postgraduate courses compared with the previous academic year when tuition fees were lower. The decline was raised in a letter to The Observer from nine UK university vice-chancellors. They condemned the "policy vacuum" on postgraduate funding and called for a funding model helping those who may be put off by high tuition fees.
The statistics prove students are deterred by higher tuition fees but also suggest this new scheme is barely short of "cooking the books". Now it might not be fraudulent itself but it is a cunning cash injection designed to increase a key cohort of postgraduates next year. The funding targets only students that could help improve those declining numbers since 2012. That way, analysts have less statistical backing any argument raised fees are behind the decline in postgraduates. This means the Government can evade further criticism higher tuition fees cause fewer students to enter postgraduate education. The Postgraduate Support Scheme is not designed to help disadvantaged students, it's probably just a case of Government scheming.
Student Union Vice-President for Education at the University of Exeter, Ben Street observed, "From my understanding, it is a move by HEFCE to ensure that there is not a dip in postgraduate applications (something that will affect university's [sic] admissions) in the interim year before the new scheme is introduced. The University's support of the scheme is a very positive move, but it is only one way in which the sector should be looking to support more students into postgraduate study."
Meanwhile, postgraduate education in the UK remains a luxury most of us cannot afford. On the continent however, German and Swedish postgraduates continue to receive state funding and pay little to nil in course fees. In fact, a Masters is considered fairly standard if you went to university in these countries. Such restrictive postgraduate assistance could mean our own levels of education will continue to be less competitive in the European job market. So the need for Government to provide meaningful postgraduate support schemes - not simply a cash injection to improve statistics - is an urgent task.
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