Policy Lunchbox: Are taught postgraduate courses sustainable in the future given prospective graduate debt?

UKCGEOur March Policy Lunchbox event certainly had a provocative title. Professor Mick Fuller, Chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education and Head of the Graduate School at the University of Plymouth, joined us to discuss the status of postgraduate taught courses in the UK (and eat a mini-muffin or two).

Approximately 30% of the awards made at UK Higher Education Institutions each year are for postgraduate qualifications. These are predominantly for taught postgraduate courses (27%) whilst research postgraduate awards comprise only 3%. However, whilst the funding landscape for PG research study remains (comparatively at least) healthy, funding for taught postgraduate courses (PGT) has reduced dramatically in recent years…

The UK is second only to the USA in the diversity of its PG intake. Overseas students account for 58% and of this, the proportion of non-EU students is large. Institutions are able to charge students from outside the EU full course fees; these are usually priced well above those charged for home/EU students. This, coupled with the fact that student numbers are not capped, means that overseas PG students present a financially attractive sector for UK HEIs.

The nature of the PGT courses provided in the UK is also diverse. From ‘traditional’ academic specialism masters (e.g. MSc, MA) to career development or career progression courses (e.g. PGCE, LLB, MBA), the range is varied and wide. Many tend to involve 1 year of full-time study including a 3-4 month independent research project. However the term ‘Masters’ has been somewhat confused by the development of the so-called Integrated or Undergraduate Masters (e.g. MChem, MEng, MSci) and Masters by research (MRes). These are often touted as specific preparation for follow-on PhD study. When you take into account the many part-time options which exist for a number of courses it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that the PGT landscape in the UK is highly complex… and somewhat baffling!

PGT courses have traditionally received HEFCE (or the corresponding devolved equivalent) support according to subject costs (defined as A, B, C or D bands) and a long course premium (25%) in recognition of 45+ weeks of tuition. Recent significant changes in HEFCE funding resulted in both the loss of the long course premium and the band D subject funding (i.e. class-based courses).  As a result of the HE funding review there had been the threat of the complete loss of HEFCE funding but as it stands it remains in place for the foreseeable future (or at least until 2015…)

Higher Education Institutions have always been in control of setting their own fees for PGT (and PGR) courses. Traditionally these were kept quite low in recognition of the HEFCE income and in order to attract UK students to take follow-on courses to their first degree. However, during the period of uncertainty as to whether HEFCE grant income would persist, many HEIs implemented a ‘fee creep’ to try and insure against income erosion and to make PGT courses self-sustainable. As the funding future is far from certain this fee creep will undoubtedly continue…

Students have been leaving University after their First degree with ever increasing amounts of student debt. This leg-iron can act as a disincentive to enrol immediately for a PGT programme.  This situation is only likely to get worse as average loan debts rise from £10,000 to nearer £30,000+. However it’s not just about fees; students also require a living allowance and the source of this can pose a big problem. Living costs often come from personal or private sources (e.g. family). This has obvious adverse implications for efforts towards widening participation.

The changes in the PGT funding environment are already starting to have an effect on the postgraduate community in the UK. The student body at the University of Manchester is a good example. According to statistics released by HESA for 2012/2013 enrolments, numbers in the postgraduate community have dropped considerably. The UK student population has fallen by approximately 10% while EU and overseas student numbers have fallen by 17% and 7% respectively. This has knock-on effects for the pricing of, and the sustainability of, taught postgraduate masters courses.

The life cycle of a PGT course is fragile. Many HEIs have critical numbers needed for a PGT course to be self-sustaining – below 10 or 12 can be unsustainable. If a PGT course doesn’t recruit well then it is suspended and after a couple of years of low/no recruitment it is withdrawn. Unfortunately, in many cases, once it’s gone it’s gone!

To this end, the UK PGT market has been described by several people as a ‘Perfect Storm’ brewing.  By analogy this means it will be turbulent, unpredictable, damaging to many and terminal to some.

Food for thought indeed for Policy Lunchbox.

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