When it comes to social mobility, the goalposts are always moving. As access to any given level of education becomes more common, inequalities tend to move upwards, with those from better-off backgrounds seeking to keep their advantages. While access to undergraduate degrees has been improving, with more and more young people going onto university, there is now a risk that postgraduate degrees become the new frontier of social mobility, with better-off graduates using higher degrees to differentiate themselves in a competitive job market.
This report, authored by Paul Wakeling and José Luis Mateos-González from the University of York, investigates access to postgraduate education in the UK, looking at the level of financial support available across the nations, the impact of the introduction of postgraduate loans on access in England, the growing cost of postgraduate degrees, and the likely impact of those costs on access.
The proportion of working class grads doing masters' doubled after loans were introduced.
The average cost of a master’s at the UK’s top universities.
The rise in fees at these institutions since 2011.
- Rates of progression from an undergraduate degree to a postgraduate master’s have increased for graduates of all backgrounds since loans were introduced, but they have increased the most for those from socio-economically disadvantaged groups. In 2013/14, just 6% of first-degree holders from working class backgrounds in England progressed to a taught higher degree (i.e. master’s), compared to 8.6% for those from managerial and professional backgrounds. By 2017/18, rates for both groups had risen considerably, and the gap in participation had reduced, with 12.9% for those from working class backgrounds and 14.2% from managerial and professional backgrounds going onto this type of study.
- But graduates from less privileged backgrounds still appear to be less likely to progress than their better-off counterparts. This is true whether looking at parental occupation (with 18.4% of graduates from professional and managerial backgrounds going onto a taught or research higher degree within 15 months of graduating, compared to 14.4% of graduates from routine or semi routine backgrounds), and education (13.9% for those with at least one parent with a higher education qualification vs 11.6% for those with none), neighbourhood (13.2% for those from high participation areas vs 12.6% for low participation areas) or type of school attended prior to higher education (14.6% for private schools vs 12.5% for state schools).
- Tuition fee levels at UK higher education institutions for taught postgraduate courses have increased in the past 14 years, well beyond inflation. For example, while average tuition fees for a classroom-based taught postgraduate programme in 2011 were £5,435 at a Golden Triangle university and £4,408 in the other Russell Group universities, by 2020 they had risen to £10,898 (an increase of 101 percent) and £8,744 (a 98 percent increase) respectively.
- The price differences between the UK’s most prestigious institutions and the rest of the sector have also widened within the same time period. In 2006/07 for classroom-based courses, the difference between the most expensive group of institutions (in the Golden Triangle) and the least costly (interestingly, these were other Russell Group universities) was just £1,404. But in 2020/21, the difference between the most and the least expensive group of institutions, this time between Golden Triangle universities and post-1992 institutions, was 2.5 times higher: £3,532.
1. The funding system at postgraduate level in England should be reformed, to remove financial barriers to postgraduate study. While recent reforms to postgraduate loans are welcome and have helped to widen access, there is still evidence of financial barriers deterring prospective students. This is particularly pressing at the country’s most prestigious institutions, as these tend to be more expensive both in terms of tuition fees and living costs. Instead of being a contribution, the government’s postgraduate financial support system should cover full maintenance costs for students, and the full course fee cost for all but the most expensive courses. This should ideally be through a mix of loans as well as grants for students from lower income backgrounds.
2. Universities should extend their widening access work to postgraduate level, especially at high-status institutions. This should include efforts to improve the attainment of disadvantaged undergraduate students to allow them to progress to postgraduate level. High status universities especially should look at recruiting students for postgraduate level from a range of different institutions, as well as exploring other ways to widen access, for example running postgraduate summer schools aimed at potential students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Universities should also make use of contextual admissions at postgraduate level, taking into account the potential as well as the prior attainment of applicants.
3. Data on widening participation to postgraduate study should be regularly published by the Office for Students and/or the Department for Education (for England) and the devolved governments. As is the case at undergraduate level, universities should be required to provide data on access and outcomes, with data regularly published as an official statistical release. Having this data available can help policy makers to track progress on opening up access to this level of study.
4. In England, The Office for Students should be given strengthened responsibility to ensure fair access to postgraduate study, as it does at undergraduate level. Universities are required to submit access and participation plans for undergraduate study to demonstrate how they will widen access, and these plans should also cover efforts to widen participation at postgraduate level, with published data on postgraduate participation being used to inform their plans and track their progress. As with undergraduate level, the OfS should have a role in engaging with institutions who are not making sufficient progress.
5. Universities should ensure course fees are fair and appropriate, and they should avoid charging application fees for postgraduate courses. If universities are charging course fees above the increased level of government support outlined above, they should provide adequate financial support themselves to ensure there are no financial barriers to participation. Ideally, universities should not be charging application fees at postgraduate level, but if application fees are charged, they should be as low as possible, with waivers easily accessible to any applicants who are unable to afford them. Oversight from the Office for Students should include looking at both course and application fees, with action taken where these costs are acting as barriers to lower-income students.
6. The application process for postgraduate courses should be clear and easy to navigate, with information about courses easy to find and the application process simplified where possible. In the short term, all universities should consistently provide information on their postgraduate courses to UCAS, so that it is quick and easy to find for applicants. In the longer term, if universities decide UCAS is not the best place for this, institutions should look at ways the sector could better coordinate to improve the application process for students, especially at taught postgraduate level, for example working together to create a centralised application system between multiple institutions. Having a clear, joined up and transparent application process would benefit applicants, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds who are less likely to have help and support with their applications. A more joined up system could also help to improve data on the application and success rates of students from different backgrounds at postgraduate level, as well as potentially reducing administrative costs for institutions.