Since the introduction of tuition fees, there has been a welcome forensic focus on widening access into higher education. The creation of the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) in 2006 saw this taken to a new level, and whilst critics can still rightly point out that many of the most selective institutions are not nearly representative of wider society (around 50% of entrants to Oxbridge come from the independent schools yet it compromises only 7% of the sector), progress is being made. In their defence, universities can rightly point out that despite the introduction of tuition fees (1998) and then top-up fees (2006), the higher education sector has made slow, but steady progress in the quest to widen access. Indeed under the last government, participation in higher education has increased more significantly amongst the poorest 20% of household incomes than any other group.
Whether progress to widen access can be maintained under the new £9000 tuition fee regime remains to be seen. Sadly, it may not be the reforms to higher education itself that jeopardise progress to widen access, but the decision to remove crucial support which previously benefited students in the stages before higher education, such as the Education Maintenance Allowance and the AimHigher programme. Alan Milburn, the former Labour cabinet minister and now coalition social mobility tsar, in his report last month, ‘University challenge: how higher education can advance social mobility’, has rightly warned that the removal of key infrastructure in the run up to higher education can do more damage to access than the finance reforms themselves.
But the debate about access can not simply focus on undergraduate study. Successive governments have seriously overlooked access to postgraduate study right across the United Kingdom. Even before tuition fees were trebled to £9000 per year in England, concerns were growing that only students able to access the ‘bank of Mum & Dad’ were able to access postgraduate education because of the need to find upfront fees. The lack of state funded loans, coupled with the scaling back of career development loans, meant that increasing numbers of potential postgraduate applicants were being prevented from progressing to further study – not because of a lack of ability or interest, but through a lack of finance. The loss of potentially capable postgraduate students is a tragic waste of talent for individuals, but it will have wider repercussions for universities and the economy too.
Unlike the debate about undergraduate access where data is plentiful, it’s hard to be more precise than simple anecdote as to whether progress is being made to widen access at postgraduate level. My guess is that rather than making progress, postgraduate study is increasingly the preserve of the well off, rather than the able. No national data is collected on the socio-economic background of our postgraduate students, so analysis is difficult to form. But the prospect of taking on yet more debt for graduates now leaving university with over £30,000 of tuition fee debt alone seems a less and less plausible choice.
Recognising the need to try and solve the postgraduate funding problem, the Universities and Science Minister David Willetts has recently called for organisations to put forward proposals about how postgraduate loans could be funded. However, it’s not clear whether the government are doing any work to advance this cause themselves. It can’t be acceptable to simply rely on suggestions to come from higher education and other organisations with an interest, the government must contribute too and ultimately come forward with proposals soon.
Continually kicking postgraduate funding and access into the political long grass isn’t just bad politics – it risks jeopardising future economic growth and the long term viability of certain departments in UK universities. Visit practically any university in the UK and they are likely to be able to point to particular departments which is being propped by international students. The benefits which international students bring to UK universities needs to be seen beyond the narrow financial lens many see them, but it is concerning if talent is being trained in the UK only to leave, potentially leaving us without the next generation of researchers, university teachers, and also those with specialist knowledge and expertise to contribute to our public and private sectors. In an economy which increasingly relies upon high levels skills and knowledge, the job of training up the next generation of postgraduates able to contribute to society and the economy will become more, not less, important.
It is of pressing concern that we open the doors to study postgraduate courses to the brightest and the best in the UK and from overseas. The government should be concerned every time a student with the potential and interest to study a postgraduate course turns their back on that avenue because they are unable to find the funding to do it. The intense interest in undergraduate access in recent years has been welcome, but now we need the same interest in postgraduate study and access too.