THE BLOG

New Loans for Post-Grads Can Make Our Society Fairer

05/12/2014 17:57 GMT | Updated 04/02/2015 10:59 GMT

There is very good news for students in this Autumn Statement - but I have high hopes that it's going to make Britain a fundamentally fairer place too. You can now get a Government loan for postgraduate study. You might know - or be - a young people whose stories are similar to the student who, when offered a scholarship for a masters, "burst into tears and said that it would change his life."

Research by The Sutton Trust recently highlighted access to postgraduate study as a threat to creating the kind of society where your parent's wealth or contacts don't determine your future. Many young people feel (rightly or wrongly) that a masters is now expected, rather than unusual, and that their peers who have the funds to study are on a much stronger footing. The numbers reflect this: 11% of people in work (aged 26-60) in Britain now hold a postgraduate qualification, up from 4% in 1996.

I used to work in higher education and have always believed that education is a silver bullet. It can change lives and creates the highly skilled people that our economy needs. When I worked for a university (before I became an MP in 2005) I was always perplexed that we wanted to bring in lots of undergraduates and then when people looked at post-graduate study or research they either needed funding from the institution, a charity/foundation/business, an unsuitable bank loan - or the bank of mum and dad.

In 2011 the CentreForum think-tank took on this challenge, and released a paper called Mastering postgraduate funding. It was written by a Tim Leunig, an associate professor at the London School of Economics who is now chief analyst and chief scientific adviser at the Department for Education. He is one of the best and brightest thinkers around. As soon as I heard his proposal, it was one of those moments when you think, "why has that never been suggested before?'

In Tim Leunig's paper he proposed a new way of financing one year taught postgraduate courses based on the system for undergraduate loans. Under this proposal, the government would loan prospective students £10,000 up front and reclaim the money later through income contingent payments.

CentreForum's modelling at the time showed that most students would pay back their entire loan after they had graduated. It also suggested that any losses would be outweighed by higher tax revenues from individuals who would not otherwise have undertaken postgraduate level work. Can this policy be that rare gem - a win-win? It looks well set to support the sector, increase tax take and open up opportunity for thousands.

In this week's Autumn Statement George Osborne announced that very idea for people under 30 pursuing masters degrees. They will now be able to apply for financial support from the Government for the 2016/17 academic year. According to the analysis 40,000 students are expected to benefit from the move, while a further 10,000 people who struggled to afford the fees will now be able to take up courses.

Building on this progress, I hope we can also look at increasing the opportunity for people to study and work part-time. Distance learning and broadening opportunities for mature students are other important parts of the puzzle. We need to keep employers talking to universities talking to students. Without this collaboration, we could risk a mismatch between the training offered and the jobs on offer. The state must not undercut the role of employers in training staff. And of course this should not act as a substitute for the scholarships and funding bodies I previously mentioned.

But those related elements aside, this policy is something we can be genuinely proud of. It's not a pre-election sweetener. It genuinely will create a fairer society and a stronger economy. Well done Tim.