The authors of our latest report, Inequality in the Highest Degree?, discuss the barriers to accessing postgraduate study.

For all the brouhaha about undergraduate fees in England (and Scotland), remarkably little attention has been paid to the cost of postgraduate study and its effect on access and participation. Master’s degrees, which account for the majority of postgraduate students, are largely exempt from fee regulation. Providers can charge what they like without reference to the Office for Students or its equivalents in the devolved nations. For undergraduates, student support packages for UK students are based on the maximum cost of fees (free in Scotland) and with a defined amount borrowable for living costs. Master’s support has improved considerably with the introduction of loan schemes in the UK nations, but in most instances, it remains capped at a particular level, set without reference to the amount of fees charged or the likely cost of living. On the face of it, this raises the prospect of an ongoing gap between the cost of master’s study and the resources available to disadvantaged students to pay those costs.

Is this a problem in reality? Until now, there has been no systematic examination of the cost of master’s study and how that affects affordability. In our new report for the Sutton Trust, we take a careful look at the effect of changes to master’s funding on postgraduate access and participation. We also estimate the cost of full-time master’s study at different universities and compare that to the funding available to students in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Although we highlight some good news in the short term, we also point to worrying trends in postgraduate fee inflation and signs that there will be a swift reversal of fortunes.

First the good news. The master’s loan schemes introduced in the past few years, first in England and then in the devolved nations, have resulted in both increased and widened postgraduate participation. Using HESA’s Destination of Leavers in Higher Education Survey and new Graduate Outcomes data we show that the rate of transition from a first degree to a master’s degree has increased for all social classes since loans were introduced. However, the rate has grown faster for those from working-class backgrounds, meaning they have reduced the participation gap with the most advantaged groups by half.

The bad news is fee inflation. Using the Reddin survey of tuition fees published annually by the late Mike Reddin and more recently by the Complete University Guide, we identify master’s fees for different types of course at all universities included in the survey. We supplement this by estimating living costs for students at each institution using the Which? student budget calculator.

From the perspective of a UK student, our findings make grim reading. Master’s fees have increased well beyond the rate of inflation. While all types of universities have seen fees rise quickly, in Russell Group universities, fees for classroom-based courses have on average approximately doubled between 2011 and 2020. In several elite universities, the basic master’s fee is already more expensive than the maximum loan available to students in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, before we even think about living costs. Fees in the post-1992 sector are lower and here we see the largest gains in participation by disadvantaged graduates.

Once we do consider living costs, the access challenges for the financially disadvantaged become very clear. Only the more generous postgraduate funding system in Wales comes close to covering the full costs of study. Even then, on our calculations all except one Russell Group university and a high proportion of other institutions are unaffordable without recourse to other funding sources. For students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland there are no institutions where the available master’s loan covers average fees and living costs. In recent times, many full-time postgraduates would supplement their income with part-time work, but with uncertainty about the future of the sectors in which such work is typically based – hospitality and retail – that looks a precarious way for students to plug the funding gap. Living with parents is another way to make ends meet. But it would be unfair if disadvantaged postgraduates were limited to the institutions on their doorstep whilst others could take their pick. Dr Rosa Marvell presents evidence from her research in our report that first-generation graduates are particularly cost-sensitive and for this reason avoid studying in London, where postgraduate opportunities are more plentiful.

Why have there been such sharp and differentiated increases in master’s fees? It would be difficult to argue there has been any fundamental shift in the cost basis of master’s-level study. In England, direct government funding has shrivelled away, but it was marginal even before the Browne Review. If anything, cross-subsidy from international master’s fees will have increased in the last decade, but it’s probably fair to think that home master’s fees are now more reflective of costs. That said, it remains unclear why there are such stark differences across providers.

Postgraduate qualifications are no longer – if they ever really were – an esoteric pursuit for a tiny academic minority. They are instead an important step towards rewarding professional employment and receive, through master’s loans, significant public support. If we are to ensure there is continued progress in access to master’s degrees as a route to social mobility and efficient use of public funds, then there is little alternative to enhanced oversight. A few universities are voluntarily doing good work to widen postgraduate participation, but without incentives or penalties it is no surprise that others are not.

In our report, we call for a funding system for postgraduate master’s which, following the Welsh model, better meets the full cost of postgraduate study. To avoid deadweight, such a system must take into account students’ own resources and direct funding to those who need it most. We also think the increased public resources which have flowed into universities through master’s loans should come with strings attached. There must be an end to continued master’s fee inflation, together with an expectation of action on postgraduate access by universities, overseen and monitored (in England) through Access and Participation Plans. Otherwise, we risk the widening participation success story of master’s loans sliding quickly into reverse.

This blog was originally published on Wonkhe.

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