Postgraduate Fees: How Could we Design a Viable Funding System to Maximise Social Mobility?

On Tuesday 27 January, King’s Think Tank hosted a panel event focusing on education and social mobility. It featured four diverse speakers with experiences in, among other things, policy, economics, education, and funding. Baroness Margaret Sharp of Guildford, Dr. Tim Leunig, Adam Wright, and Professor Mick Fuller spoke about obstacles to entering higher education and potential policy solutions to overcome them.

Professor Fuller, who is the chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education and the head of graduate studies at Plymouth University, opened the discussion by highlighting that a large proportion of those pursuing postgraduate degrees are either self- or family-funded, raising questions about who is permitted to enter higher education. He then laid out the framework for a proposed future postgraduate loan scheme that became a theme of the evening’s discussion. An interesting point that he raised was the tension between obtaining a postgraduate degree and questions of social mobility: does entering higher education mean that one has changed social class and achieved social mobility?

Baroness Sharp, a Liberal Democrat in the House of Lords, moved the discussion to focus on the importance of research in the UK, and specifically the sources of funding for PhD students. She raised concerns about declining numbers of research scientists within the UK, and correlated this with higher tuition fees and the prospects of higher debt. This is detrimental to the UK, as only approximately 8% of research is published within the country. This means that about 92% of research is done elsewhere, and the Baroness emphasized the crucial role that PhD researchers play in transferring that knowledge to industry at home.

Adam Wright, a research and policy officer at the National Union of Students (NUS), added another perspective, bringing up the issue of whether financial obstacles are the only impediment to entering higher education. While he supported the proposed loan scheme that Professor Fuller underlined, which would award £10,000 loans to an unlimited number of students, he was cognizant of the need to identify underlying issues that keep people from pursuing postgraduate degrees. For example, he presented data from 2011/2012 showing that 79% of students attending high-tariff universities stayed at high-tariff universities for postgraduate study, whereas only 18% of students at low-tariff universities transitioned to high-tariff universities for postgraduate study. In his concluding thoughts, he advocated a convincing policy proposal that involved introducing some kind of “soft” government regulation on postgraduate fees.

Dr. Tim Leunig, a member of faculty at the LSE and a ministerial policy advisor for the Department of Education, closed the panel discussion by remarking upon the economic viability of postgraduate degrees. He also focused the conversation to emphasize the distinction between middle-class and wealthy students. The former often struggle to fund postgraduate education, and should be included, along with students from underrepresented postcodes and social groups, in discussions about funding policy. He concluded with his support for the proposed loan scheme, which would not financially compromise the government and would be the deciding factor in many middle-class students’ ability to pursue a postgraduate degree.

In the question-and-answer session that followed, students raised two major questions that built upon the themes prevalent in the panel discussion. First, students raised concerns about the perceived mismatch between the needs of the labor market and the skills with which postgraduate students are entering the workforce. The panelists all refuted the idea that the labor market is saturated and that there is a shortage of places for those with postgraduate degrees. Dr. Leunig pointed out that although youth unemployment tends to be high, unemployment among young people with postgraduate degrees is much lower. The Baroness added many undergraduate students choose to pursue a postgraduate degree in order to make themselves more employable in an environment of high youth unemployment, and Wright pointed out that many graduates with PhDs are entering the workforce rather than academia. All of these points indicate that there is a symbiotic relationship between postgraduate degrees and employment.

Towards the end of the discussion, students were also concerned about the proposed loan scheme, positing that £10,000 is insufficient to cover both living expenses and university fees. A student asked why the loans would not be large enough to cover the entire cost of pursuing a postgraduate degree. Dr. Leunig, upon whose research the proposal is partially based, contested this idea. At, say, £20,000, these loans would mean disproportionately larger losses for the government, which would result in a finite number of loans and thus compromise the ideal of social mobility that the loans are meant to bolster. At the end of the evening, questions still remained about whether a loan scheme will be enough to bridge the gap between those who pursue postgraduate degrees and those who do not.

King’s Think Tank is holding a roundtable on Wednesday the 4th of February with students interested in pursuing these questions further and creating policy recommendations under the tutelage of the organization. If you are a King’s College London student and are interested in attending and writing an influential and current policy paper, please go to https://www.facebook.com/kclthinktank?ref=ts&fref=ts for details about registering for the roundtable or email editor@kingsthinktank.org.

Samantha Mercadante

Shamsuddin Hemani

Education Policy Centre editors

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