Postgraduate degrees are more valuable than ever—so why are they also harder for poorer students to access?

Outreach initiatives that help working-class students access higher education often end at undergraduate level. In a marketplace where postgraduate qualifications are becoming more important, it's time to change that

February 05, 2019
The University of Manchester is one of the few institutions that offers means-tested support for postgrads. Photo: PA
The University of Manchester is one of the few institutions that offers means-tested support for postgrads. Photo: PA
Cast an eye across the headlines of any newspaper education section and you’ll see, in the recurring debates over grammar schools and Oxbridge admissions, that inequality is at the heart of the British education system. Thankfully, at last, British universities have begun to take action: An ever-growing number of institutions provide bursaries for low-income undergraduates, and elite institutions like Oxford and Cambridge have started schemes to attract working-class undergraduates. 

But in at least one important respect, the Higher Education sector’s public commitment to equality shows itself to be insincere: despite recruiting more low-income undergraduates, there is an almost complete lack of funding to help these same working-class students progress to postgraduate degrees. And, most troublingly of all, neither the media nor policy-makers are engaging with this particular educational class issue. 

“Taught postgraduate degrees” might sound like a small issue. In fact, they affect an ever-growing number of Britons and represent a new “class ceiling” as more and more people go to university in the first place. Masters are increasingly not just a mandatory stepping stone for PhDs. No: today a postgrad qualification is required by many industries, and in others needed to access higher positions. They are also not just an issue for the young as re-training becomes a crucial issue for those of us who—working in the digital age—will need to develop multiple careers throughout our lives. There can be no true equality in the workforce or in academia if the disadvantages of a low-income background are dismissed as soon as someone graduates from a bachelor’s. 

Government policy of lending taught postgraduates a maximum of £10k is simply not enough. In most cases, this sum will not cover living costs on top of the average tuition cost of £7k. For elite institutions’ Master’s degrees, it won’t even cover tuition, which sits around £12k. 

Thanks to this, those able to afford Master’s degrees either need to already have well-paying jobs to sustain them, a family who can foot the bill, or the willingness to study part-time, which means juggling commitments and delaying certain opportunities. This economic landscape not only robs prospective low-income applicants of their aspirations, but robs the country of diversity in research and leadership.

As Britain’s richest academic institutions, with access to a pool of £21bn between them, one might hope that Oxford and Cambridge would offer bursaries for disadvantaged postgraduates in the same way they do for undergraduates. Despite paying lip service to social mobility, the two universities’ central pots of money allocate funding based exclusively on previous academic achievement. It’s the same at the wealthy and prestigious universities of Durham, University College London and King’s College London: undergraduate level is where the support for poor students stops, with the exception of a smattering of low-level financial aids, such as St Andrew’s £1,500 means-tested Accommodation Award.

At Oxford, in fact, private donation scholarships mean pupils of certain selective schools have ring-fenced funding while nothing similar exists for former pupils of state schools. Boys who go to the UK’s largest independent boy’s day school will be eligible to apply for the “Philip Wright Scholarship for former Manchester Grammar School students,” a postgraduate scholarship at Wadham College which covers up to £10k of the student’s tuition and £8k of his living expenses. It’s not the only Oxford scholarship exclusively available for people from selective schools. Attending Monmouth Boys School or Haberdashers Monmouth School for Girls means eligibility for “Senior Fiddian” graduate scholarships at Brasenose College, offering a potential £3k fee reduction. (According to Cambridge’s listed scholarships, such situations do not occur there.)

It is already viable for universities to use their money to attract and support poor postgraduates. The London School of Economics (LSE) Graduate Support Scheme offers need-based support for diploma and taught master’s students from the UK, EU and overseas; out of a total pot of £3.2m students can receive between £5k and £15k, with the aim being to supplement other funding, such as a government loan, so that their finances do not hold them back. In a simple and consistent measure to ensure equality, each year Warwick awards 100 full scholarships for UK and EU taught master’s students who have previously received financial help at undergraduate level, giving them up to £10k. The University of Manchester’s Manchester Master’s Bursary offers 100 bursaries of £3,000 in funding for UK and EU taught master’s students with a set of “Widening Participation Criteria.”

In the short term, universities either need to drastically bring down the cost of a course—which lasts less than a year full time—or dedicate some of their wealth to truly supporting low-income students with bursaries to help every single postgraduate who received financial support at undergraduate progress. Outreach drives for low-income students and those from disadvantaged postcodes must also be extended to postgraduate level. In addition, support must extend to internships and mentorships, righting the deficit of cultural capital as well as the financial gap.

Of course, the issue at the heart of this is the sheer cost of Higher Education in the UK and the only long-term solution will be an overhaul of the fee and loan system where accessibility, value and equality are taken into account and hopefully free education can be available to all.