As demand for full-time English undergraduate education continues to confound the prophets of doom by going up this year – despite the near three-fold increase in tuition fees – concern is mounting at falling applications for postgraduate courses, especially from UK students.

Key among areas of concern is the decline in UK-domiciled students enrolling on full-time master’s courses, which fell by 13% in 2012-13, and the increasing dependency on international students to sustain many British postgraduate courses.

This was highlighted in a Universities UK report published last month, which showed that 73% of the 141,090 entrants to full-time master’s degrees in 2012-13 were from outside the UK.

Part-time master’s numbers at English universities are also down, but this is being largely blamed on falling demand for undergraduate and postgraduate higher education from those in work due to the recession, as University World News reported on 23 May.

Government action promised

The British government is clearly anxious to reverse the decline in UK students going on to postgraduate education and has promised to support action to stimulate postgraduate participation. It will put forward its ideas in the 2014 Autumn Statement, which is expected in November, following a Budget pledge earlier this year.

Universities UK argues in its latest report Postgraduate Taught Education: The Funding Challenge that the postgraduate student population is so diverse it is unlikely that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution will be the answer.

When English full-time undergraduate fees nearly trebled to £9,000 (US$15,000) per year, the higher tuition fees were covered by government loans to home and EU students. These loans only have to be repaid after the students graduate and are earning over £21,000-a-year. The result: demand for first-degree courses has grown, as The Telegraph reported on 6 June.

But the undergraduate loan scheme is proving expensive and Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, urges the UK government to consider a range of options that are affordable to students, to universities, to private sector partners and the government itself.

Pilot projects

To test different ways to stimulate the domestic taught postgraduate market, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, or HEFCE, invested £25 million this year in 20 pilot projects, as University World News first reported in November.

These will involve 40 Higher Education Institutions all over England and will see universities and employers working together to try to boost participation by students, particularly from those who might not otherwise progress to this level.

The projects range from financial and pastoral support, mentoring and networking, curricula change, funded studentships, work placements and a variety of bursary and loan schemes.

Cranfield's Prof William Stephens

Cranfield’s Prof William Stephens

Cranfield University is among those taking part and their University Secretary, Professor William Stephens recently wrote a blog for The Conversation, saying: “Without access to funding, postgraduate taught courses may increasingly become the preserve of those who can rely on the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’. The question of how to make postgraduate education affordable to all remains a major challenge.”

Cranfield’s pilot project builds on the successful MBA Loan Scheme managed by Prodigy Finance Ltd, an investment fund primarily financed by alumni to provide tuition and maintenance fee loans to highly creditworthy students.

This has now been widened to cover Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, or STEM, subjects, and aims to be more inclusive by developing a new funding model financed by HEFCE, Cranfield and business to deliver affordable loans for students whose anticipated salaries are lower and possible non-repayment rates may be higher than for MBA cohorts.

The Cranfield Postgraduate Loan Scheme aims to provide 100 loans a year of up to £15,000 for tuition fees and maintenance and has already approved almost £500,000.

Stephens told University World News that Cranfield was working closely with the Government’s industrial strategy and employers to try to meet the demand for postgraduates in STEM subjects, but “Our student surveys show that the major reason for students not taking up their offer of a place is lack of finances.”

Pressure for a viable loans scheme

Cranfield’s postgraduate fees for intensive one-year MSc courses have risen from £5,000 to £6,800 in recent years – still well below the £9000 for undergraduate courses – but postgraduate students must pay the fee upfront and also need to find maintenance funds for the 45 week courses: hence the growing pressure for a viable loans scheme.

At Durham University, they are exploring establishing a Credit Union to offer postgraduate taught master’s tuition low-cost fee loans. The university is working on the options available to create this new funding model, which would be supported by staff, students and alumni through a common-bond.

The hope is that the scheme would become self-financing over time and that postgraduate students could access low-interest loans to support their studies, thereby helping to increase social mobility.

Elsewhere, Royal Veterinary College is involved in a collaborative project, which is focusing on 300 undergraduate students from under-represented backgrounds, from nine higher education institutions across 50 subjects. The project will identify, train, pay and support postgraduate taught students to act as mentors to undergraduate students and has two strands: Information, Advice and Guidance and academic achievement.

Dr Paul Wakeling, an educational sociologist at the University of York, has been appointed as the programme analyst for HEFCE’s Postgraduate Support Scheme, or PSS. He will be drawing out initial findings from the pilot projects for the funding council in October and the PSS findings will feed into HEFCE’s advice to government about postgraduate funding in 2015-16.

The UK government has pledged to invest £50 million to support initiatives to stimulate UK student participation in postgraduate education in 2015-16 – the year when the first cohort of undergraduates emerge from having paid £9,000 per-year tuition fees. The hope is that more could follow.

Employers seen as important partners

Dr Paul Wakeling

Dr Paul Wakeling

Wakeling told University World News: “We are working to a tight timetable, but what is really exciting is that we have got institutions, their representative bodies and the government really thinking about supporting the postgraduate population.

“Finance is clearly a major issue, but we are exploring a range of options – from large bursary schemes at Imperial College London to new hybrid models of postgraduate education by combining academic study with substantial work placements at Nottingham Trent University. Employers are seen as a very important partner in many of the projects.

“One of the things vexing many people is how to raise demand from under-represented groups and whether the models used ten or 20 years to stimulate demand for undergraduate education can be transferred to postgraduate taught courses. Advice and guidance and mentoring may turn out to be equally as important as easing access to financial support.”

Vibrant sector until unexplained dip

Dr Brooke Storer-Church is managing the Postgraduate Support Scheme at HEFCE. She told University World News: “Postgraduate provision is a vibrant and healthy sector, growing over the previous decade, but having an as yet unexplained dip in student numbers from the UK in the last couple of years.”

Dr Brooke Storer-Church is managing HEFCE's Postgraduate Support Scheme

Dr Brooke Storer-Church is managing HEFCE’s Postgraduate Support Scheme

She said HEFCE was leading much of the work to revitalise domestic postgraduate demand, but others have also been exploring the broader context of postgraduate funding, including Universities UK, the UK Council for Graduate Education, the British Academy and the National Union of Students.

“Obviously, there was some of anxiety as to how the 2015-16 cohort (the first to graduate after paying £9,000 tuition fees) would react in terms of taking up postgraduate education , but this dip in numbers has happened before that – so we can’t link the two.

“Something is going on with the domestic market and that is why we have agreed to invest £25 million in the pilot projects.

“International numbers have continued to grow and the UK continues to offer a very attractive postgraduate provision for international students.

“But there are tensions: The increasing number of overseas students has implications for sustainability of university provision if students stop coming from certain countries or can’t come because of changes by the UKBA.

“And international students expect to be immersed with British students. They have not come just to be with other international students. But what we are seeing in many universities is that there are more international students than UK students on some of their postgraduate courses.”

International comparisons

The figures are striking and show that for 2012-13, UK domiciled students made up just over half (53%) of all postgraduate taught entrants to English Higher Education Institutions, while international students were 37.8%, and Other EU students were 9.2%.

To find out whether this is just an ‘English problem’ and to look at how other countries encourage their undergraduates to go on to postgraduate study, HEFCE has commissioned researchers at Oxford University for a comparative study across seven countries and look for examples of good practice. The comparator countries are Australia, England, India, Norway, Scotland, Spain and the US.

The Oxford report will feed into the findings and recommendations HEFCE will make to government prior to the Autumn Statement, with the success or otherwise of loans scheme used to finance postgraduate study in other countries being among the areas under examination, said Storer-Church.

THIS ARTICLE first appeared under the headline ‘Government pledge to help boost postgraduate demand’ in University World News, 12 June 2014

Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist and public relations consultant who regularly blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ association, EUPRIO, and writes for University World News, mainly about UK and European higher education. He was runner-up in the UK Education Journalism 2013 Awards for Outstanding Online Education Commentary.

Main photo: Postgraduate students at the University of Manchester

Further reading:
Postgraduate Taught Education: The Funding Challenge, Universities UK