Issue bonds for postgrad loans, says report (UK)

By Elizabeth Gibney

Groups of universities could raise funding for postgraduate student loans by issuing bonds, a report by the thinktank CentreForum has suggested.
The certificates of debt, which guarantee repayment plus interest at a later date, could be used to source money from financial markets for loans, says the study entitled Postgraduate education: better funding and better access.

The suggestion is one of a number of proposals – including government-backed loans – to resolve the lack of funding for UK postgraduate students, which the thinktank says has reached “crisis point”.

The report, published on 5 June, includes chapters by figures from business and higher education that “unite behind the case for a postgraduate funding settlement”.

These include the Confederation of British Industry, GuildHE, the Higher Education Commission, National Union of Students, Sutton Trust, the Russell Group and economists Joanne Lindley and Stephen Machin.

The bond proposal, put forward in an article by the HEC’s Joel Mullan and developed by Jon Wakeford from university estates company UPP, would see groups of universities, perhaps based on mission group or geography, issue the bonds.

Precedent suggests that institutions would be able to borrow at below commercial rates, while the universities could then select the courses on which they wanted to target lending to students. “In effect, institutions would be investing in their own future pipeline of postgraduate students,” Mr Mullan says.

The report also makes a strong case for a government-backed loan system that the other funding schemes would complement. It says a representative pilot should be commissioned to test undergraduate-style postgraduate loan systems put forward in the past by CentreForum and the NUS.

Other recommendations in the report include that universities should link a proportion of their endowment and alumni fundraising to postgraduate scholarship programmes and increase engagement with industry.

Funding models for postgraduate research should also be structured around a four-year minimum period of study, not three, and “as a matter of urgency” universities should review their flexible learning arrangements to make sure they can cater for part-time postgraduate study, it adds.

The report likens education’s highest tier to “an exclusive golf club”, limited to affluent individuals and overseas students, which is becoming increasingly exclusive amid rising tuition fees and real-terms reductions in research and funding council support.

It says these factors have contributed to a fall in the number of British students undertaking postgraduate taught courses, despite the rising value of these courses in the global economy.

The report adds that universities have “virtually no interest in finding out about individuals who were capable enough to be offered a place, but were too poor to take up the offer”, with few monitoring how many students do not take up places because of finances.

“Successive higher education reviews have swept this issue under the carpet. Social mobility and the economy are suffering as a result, and people are being deprived of opportunities. We need to review postgraduate funding as a matter of urgency,” says Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert, who wrote the foreword to the report.

“Everyone agrees that widening access to postgraduate study is the right course of action,” added Tom Frostick, policy analyst at CentreForum and co-editor of the report. “It is time that something is done about it.”

Source: Times Higher Education