Debt put postgrads off before fees hike (UK)

By Jack Grove

Longitudinal study adds to concerns raised about the future of UK research. Jack Grove reports.

Fresh fears over the future of postgraduate education in the UK have been raised after a survey revealed that half of graduates are already being deterred from further study by debt With undergraduate fees rising to a maximum of £9,000 a year this autumn, senior sector figures have voiced concerns about the impact of increased debt levels on postgraduate numbers in 2015 and beyond.

A longitudinal survey of around 17,000 undergraduates, who started university in 2006 as tuition fees rose to £3,000 a year, highlights how debt levels influence students’ decisions over whether to undertake postgraduate study. Compiled by researchers at the Higher Education Careers Services Unit and the University of Warwick, the final Futuretrack study, published on 8 November, found that half of the graduates wanted to pursue further study but did not because they were reluctant to take on more debt.

Working-class students, older graduates and those from black or mixed-race backgrounds are the most likely to be deterred, the survey shows. Around 25 per cent of people who responded to the study, now in its fourth stage, had completed or were sitting postgraduate courses, but say their choices had been restricted by financial considerations. Nearly 10 per cent report that they chose postgraduate courses that allowed them to live at home rather than the ones they would have preferred to do.

Familiar refrain
Joel Mullan, senior policy analyst at the Higher Education Commission (HEC), an independent body made up of 20 leaders from the academy, business and politics that published a series of recommendations on postgraduate funding last month, said that the Futuretrack study confirmed many of the concerns it had raised. “Most loans for postgraduate study are offered on a near-commercial basis, without the protection of income contingency,” he said. “It’s unsurprising that people are being put off entering further study on these terms. We need to put a better system in place.”

Despite student worries about debt, the Futuretrack report says that those who had completed postgraduate degrees were “most likely…to be confident about their long-term career prospects and, when in employment, satisfied with their current job”. This contrasts with a bleak outlook for their peers who started university at the same time, who graduated into an extremely tough employment market.

About 40 per cent of early-career graduates are in non-graduate jobs – almost double the rate for people graduating in 1999 – while 41 per cent had worked unpaid at some point, the survey says. Around 10 per cent had experienced a “significant spell” of unemployment, it adds. There is also evidence that the so-called “graduate premium” – estimated to be worth £200,000 over the course of a male graduate’s working lifetime – has declined by about 2 per cent a year over the past decade, the report says.

Kate Purcell, professor at the Warwick Institute for Employment Research and leader of the study, said that those who had completed postgraduate courses felt more positive about their chances in the labour market. “Those who have done a postgraduate degree are more likely to be in a graduate job, even though they have been in the labour market for a shorter time,” she said.

Geoff Whitty, former director of the Institute of Education, University of London and a member of the HEC, said that a new postgraduate funding system was needed as the debt levels faced by this year’s university entrants could have a “serious impact” on postgraduate provision. “Quite apart from specialist postgraduate institutions, around half the intake of some comprehensive universities is now postgraduate in one way or another,” said Professor Whitty. “Aside from any direct detriment to institutional income from falling postgraduate recruitment, the concern within the academy itself has related particularly to the impact of a decline in postgraduate numbers on the future strength of UK research and scholarship.”

He added: “If no decision is made on an appropriate funding scheme for home students in the near future, some urgent interim measures will need to be put in place before students emerge with increased undergraduate debt.”

Source: Times Higher Education