Peter Lampl on a worrying divide in postgraduate studies

Today’s new Sutton Trust report on the Postgraduate Premium highlights what is becoming a new frontier in the battle to improve social mobility.

In the 15 years since I established the Sutton Trust, we have started to make inroads into the state/private school balance at Oxford and Cambridge, and there have been improvements in the numbers of poorer students going to university relative to their richer peers.

But the new report shows that as more young people from less privileged homes are going to university – and we have yet to see the full impact of undergraduate fees particularly on the numbers from middle income homes – the goalposts have been shifting.

Where just 4% or 600,000 people in the workforce had postgraduate degrees 16 years ago, 11% or over 2 million have such qualifications today. Of course, there are real economic benefits in having a better educated workforce in today’s global economy. And last year’s report from the Higher Education Commission highlighted a growing demand for expertise in science, technology, engineering, maths and design.

Yet, at below 10%, the UK has one of the lowest progression rates to Master’s studies of any European country, a rate matching Andorra and Kazakhstan, according to the 2012 Bologna Process Implementation Report. from HE Commission report, p31

So we need more postgraduates. A better educated workforce should be good for Britain. Brainpower is what adds value in today’s economy. But it is essential that this should not come at the expense of widening inequalities of access to these professions.

Yet, the truth is that postgraduate study is becoming increasingly the preserve of the better off student, both from home and abroad.

There has been a big rise in postgraduate enrolments over the last decade. There are now over 650,000 postgraduate students at our universities. But HEFCE analysis has shown that the numbers on taught postgraduate courses more than doubled between 2002 and 2010, yet the increase among domestic students has been just 16%. Nearly half of all postgraduate students in the UK are now from overseas. Amongst research students, growth by international students has been twice as fast as among UK students.

Our universities have benefited from this extra international income, and it is a real concern that the visa clampdown may be reducing the numbers from overseas. But with the impact of £9000 fees, where graduates will have £40-£50,000 of debt after their first degree, the growth gap between British and overseas postgraduates seems likely to widen rather than narrow. We are in danger of losing out real potential.

Unless we address the issue, there is a real danger that we are squandering the talent of a generation, and losing the chance to stretch our brightest minds, so that they develop the innovations and ideas that will be essential to our economy in the future. At the same time, the higher wage premium – around £5500 a year more on average, or £200,000 across a working lifetime, compared to a £100,000 premium for a first degree  – enjoyed by postgraduate degree holders threatens further to widen income inequalities, reducing social mobility.

It is not easy for Government at a time of public spending restraint to consider improved funding for access to postgraduate study. Yet few investments have the potential to create such significant economic gain.

The Higher Education Commission last year urged ministers to extend the student loan scheme in a targeted way to postgraduate study. That would be a good start. But we need to have a much more concerted effort by government, universities and the professions to ensure that postgraduate study is about stretching the brightest minds and not simply dipping into the deepest pockets.

That’s why we need Government, professional associations and universities to develop a coherent offer for postgraduate study, including bursaries, to enable good graduates from low and middle income backgrounds to continue their studies without incurring significant extra debts.

We must keep the impact of the undergraduate fees on the social mix in postgraduate education under careful review, so that appropriate action can be taken where it can be demonstrated that it is further reducing social mobility. The Office for Fair Access should look at universities’ postgraduate recruitment patterns as part of their annual assessment of access agreements, and consider what steps are being taken to ensure a broad social intake.

In the end, it is vital that the best postgraduates, from home and overseas, study in Britain and contribute their ideas and innovations to help power our economy and improve our society. But to maximise that contribution, we need them to be able to do so on merit rather than money.

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