01/03/2013 07:14 GMT | Updated 01/05/2013 06:12 BST

The Growing Crisis in UK Postgraduate Education


In today's knowledge economy, postgraduate education is the foundation for many key professions and careers from academia through to engineering. We live in an increasingly competitive global environment in which tomorrow's leaders of industries and services need to be at the cutting edge of their field. As a result, it is more important than ever that they are educated to a higher level than that of an undergraduate degree. The Sutton Trust recently reported that a postgraduate degree is increasingly required with 11% of the workforce (21 million 26-60 year olds) holding this level of qualification.

In academia, Masters Degrees are considered a condition for continuing onto research in many subjects and an important element of research training, and as a result the current funding system needs to be redeveloped. Students leaving university at the age of 21, saddled with thousands of pounds worth of debt, are less likely to incur the costs of a postgraduate degree with little to no external funding available to assist them.

A crisis in funding and access is now materialising. Following several years of continuing growth, recent HESA (Higher Education Statistics Agency) statistics reveal a disturbing downturn with postgraduate enrolments in this vital sector starting to decline. There is now a major question mark over the future of postgraduate education especially with the first '9k students' graduating in 2015. The Higher Education Commission noted that institutions and employers have repeatedly voiced their concerns that demand for postgraduate study would be affected by the increased fees.

Postgraduate study has been largely neglected by the UK government, most notably it was absent from the Browne Review into the future of HE funding. The national debate is slowly starting to grow with the recent Lords report on STEM education and the aforementioned Higher Education Commission enquiry, but the issue is still missing from any forward looking government policy on higher education.

The funding currently available to postgraduate taught students is severely limited, especially now that there has been a restriction of Masters level funding from Research Councils. Struggling to meet upfront fees of around £8,000, students who cannot rely on savings or parental contributions are supporting themselves through worrying methods - paying for tuition fees on credit cards or through the use of commercial loans. Professional and Career Development loans are of particular concern given their high interest rates and short repayment timeframes. Students are being priced out of the postgraduate education system.

Taught postgraduate study risks becoming a luxury inaccessible to most students. It should instead be seen as the 'new frontier of widening participation' by policymakers - or we risk a number of professions turning into elitist domains populated by practitioners from restricted backgrounds. High-achieving graduates from low and middle income brackets are increasingly unable to access postgraduate education. There is also an income premium attached to postgraduate qualifications, the above-mentioned Sutton Trust report notes that someone with a Masters can 'expect to earn £5,500 more a year'. A sustainable funding system needs to be established in order to address this imbalance.

Any government concerned about the future of the British economy needs to acknowledge the issues surrounding postgraduate education and commence building this system as speedily as possible.