New Sutton Trust research examines access to postgraduate education as new frontier in social mobility.

Government loans introduced in 2015 have enabled low- and moderate- income students to undertake postgraduate study, but rising tuition fees risk wiping out these gains, according to new research published by the Sutton Trust today.  

The research – by academics from the University of York using the latest available data to measure changes over time – found that the proportion of working-class graduates progressing on to a taught masters doubled between 2013/14 and 2017/18 (from 6% to 12.9%).  

However, those from working class backgrounds are much less likely to enter and graduate from university in the first place. But even from within the pool of graduates – in which working-class students are already under-represented – those from better off backgrounds are still more likely to progress on to postgraduate study, with to 8.6% doing so in 2013/14 compared to 14.2% in 2017/18. 

The decreasing gap in participation between working class graduates and their better-off peers, is down to the introduction of postgraduate loans in England in 2015. Before they were introduced, students had to cover tuition fees and living costs themselves.  

While today’s report welcomes the introduction of postgraduate loans, it warns that none of the loans available in the UK cover fully the cost of full-time postgraduate education without having to get resources from elsewhere.  

In England, for example, the maximum loan available for fees and maintenance is £11,200. Yet the research finds that the average tuition fees for a classroom based postgraduate programme at a Golden Triangle university – Oxford, Cambridge, and some top institutions in London – is £10,900. The total cost of study at these institutions is now over £20,000 per annum when living costs are included.  

The research further finds that average tuition fees at a Golden Triangle university have risen by over 100% since 2011, when this figure was £5,440.  

Postgraduate education has grown in the last few decades and is increasingly seen as the new frontier for social mobility. Between 2007/08 and 2019/20, the number of students studying a postgraduate course at UK universities grew by 53%, from 249,480 to 381,800. Those with postgraduate degrees tend to fare better in the jobs market, with graduates from master’s or doctoral degrees earning around 20 percent more than those with undergraduate degrees only.   

To ensure that postgraduate education contributes to social mobility in the UK, the Sutton Trust is calling for further reforms to the loans system to remove remaining financial barriers. In particular, the Trust would like to see the funding available better reflect the full costs of postgraduate study, with grants available for students from lower-income backgrounds.  

The Trust is also recommending that universities should extend their widening access work to postgraduate level.   

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chair of the Sutton Trust and chair of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: 

“As rates of postgraduate study have increased, so too has the role of postgraduate study in promoting social mobility. But with postgraduate study costing over £20,000 a year it’s it is out of reach for many students from poorer homes, who are already carrying a lot of undergraduate debt.   

“The introduction of loans in 2015 was a welcome reform and has done much to improve access in the past few years. But the rising cost of courses at the most prestigious institutions is outpacing the loans available for young people, who also need to cover their living costs. We’d like to see grants for living costs introduced for lower-income students.”  

Report author, Professor Paul Wakeling from the Department of Education said:

“The decreasing gap in participation between working class graduates and their better-off peers, is down to the introduction of master’s loans in England in 2015.

“Before they were introduced, students had to arrange to cover the cost of tuition fees and living costs themselves.

“Whilst we welcome the introduction of postgraduate loans it should be noted that no system in the UK allows students to cover fully the cost of their postgraduate education full-time without having to get resources from elsewhere.”


  • The Sutton Trust was founded by Sir Peter Lampl in 1997 to improve social mobility in Britain. The Trust has influenced government policy on more than 30 occasions; its programmes have to date given 50,000 young people the opportunity to change their lives; and it has published over 200 pieces of agenda-setting research. 
  • Methods: To assess the impact of postgraduate loans on access, researchers from the University of York used data from the Destination of Leavers of Higher Education survey (DLHE (Destination of Leavers of Higher Education), curated by the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), to examine educational destinations of UK undergraduate leavers between 2012/13 and 2016/17, including those graduates that started a postgraduate degree between 2013/14 and 2017/8. The researchers also used the first round of the new Graduate Outcomes survey, also managed by HESA, to examine outcomes for 2017/18 UK undergraduate leavers, 15 months after graduation. The two datasets are not directly comparable, so cannot be used in combination to look at changes over time.   
  • To look at the costs of postgraduate study, the researchers used the Reddin survey of tuition fees and Which? student budget calculator, a tool advertised by UCAS to help prospective students understand the average expenses they may incur when pursuing a degree at any UK higher education institution.  

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