Postgraduate funding has been an important issue in the UK for a long time now. The high costs of a postgraduate education, combined with limited amounts of public funding and increasing costs of undergraduate tuition fees could lead to a bottleneck in the higher education infrastructure.
A recent survey of 1,117 students from across the UK has shown that two-thirds of undergraduate students now find it hard to justify the costs of postgraduate study.
Only 35 per cent of graduate students replied "yes" when asked if they though obtaining a postgraduate degree would be value for money. This contrasted with Master's and PhD students, where 59 and 77 per cent respectively felt that their postgraduate degree was worth the cost.
In an interview with the Times Higher Education, Rachel Westone, NUS vice-president, responded: "Thousands of students every year were denied the opportunity to get postgraduate qualifications because they could not afford to pay upfront fees. It is often only the very rich, the very lucky or those who are willing to gamble with high levels of debt that have access to master's level education."
These sentiments were evident in postgraduate enrollment figures, which showed a drop of 6% in postgraduate numbers in 2011-12. This is after 10 years of unbroken growth according to HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council).
Fortunately, issues over the costs of postgraduate study have not gone unnoticed by senior figures. Professor Sir Bob Burgess, Vice Chancellor of the University of Leicester, suggested that the government should encourage employers to fund postgraduate education themselves, as well as promote distance learning as a means of reducing the costs of study.
However, the former point brings about the question of what value (if any) employers themselves see in students with postgraduate qualifications. The majority of small-medium sized businesses (SME's) that we surveyed have shown a strong preference for relevant skills and experience over educational qualifications.
Research Councils also play an increasingly important role in making postgraduate education more accessible to promising students, however their budgets will always be limited.
Foreign policy and immigration laws are equally important. The UK's commitment to the new 2013-2020 EU budget will deliver a €34 billion increase in spending for competitive measures (including research). Furthermore, the UK's plans to increase International student numbers by 20 per cent over the next five years will bring another £750 million into the higher education system.
It is still difficult however to find a perfect solution to a system where the value and merits of a postgraduate degree are still relatively unknown to students, even more so to undergraduates from 2012 (after the new tuition fees were introduced) who may be graduating with up to £53,000 in debt. It's likely that higher tuition fees for undergraduates will only serve to limit future enrollment figures at the postgraduate level.
One of the main things the government needs to do going forward is provide an accommodating student loans repayment scheme to postgraduate students that is currently being enjoyed by undergraduate students. That's why we were excited to hear about the Liberal Democrats plans to introduce a postgraduate loans system offering loans of up to £10,000 a year in their party's latest conference.
In conclusion, in order to keep postgraduate levels up in the future and remove any threat of a bottle neck in the higher education system, the government will need to a) lower the costs of study or provide more funding options, b) increase the number foreign students enrolling here in the UK and c) provide a better job of promoting and justifying a postgraduate education to both students and employers.