Postgraduate students at English universities are to get a helping hand from the Government in the form of an income-contingent loan of up to £10,000 from 2016-17.

Chancellor George Osborne

Chancellor George Osborne

The new loan package announced by UK Chancellor George Osborne in his eagerly awaited Autumn Statement was generally welcome across the English higher education sector.

For the number of UK-domiciled students enrolling on master’s course has plummeted in recent years, with Universities UK saying 73% of the 140,000 entrants to full-time master’s degrees were from outside the UK in 2012-13, as we reported in June.

But some experts are worried that universities may see the new financial support as an excuse to raise postgraduate fees for home and EU students as happened when undergraduate fees linked to loans drifted up to the maximum of £9,000.

Will fees rise?

Paul Wakeling, an educational sociologist at the University of York and programme analyst for the Higher Education Funding Council for England Postgraduate Support Scheme, said: “There’s definitely a worry that money could get taken up in fee inflation, and people will be left looking for money to support their maintenance.”

Writing in The Conversation Wakeling said: “There could be a bonanza of EU students applying, as those studying in England will be eligible.

“These loans – which are limited to English-domiciled students for courses in the rest of the UK – are laying down the challenge to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

“The Scots already have a postgraduate loan system, but it’s a lot smaller than this one – it’s only for a specific set of named courses.”

Loans only for the under-thirties

Wakeling said he was taken by surprise by the Chancellor’s announcement that the postgraduate loans would be restricted to people under 30.

postgrad image“There’s still a lot of detail to be clarified, but I think it’s fantastic that the government has listened to demands for action on postgraduate loans,” he said.

Nicholas Barr, Professor of Public Economics at LSE, said: “Loud cheers for a loan for postgraduates. Not having a loan for postgraduates is barking mad – you can hear them sniggering in South Korea.

“Though it sounds as though quite a lot of detail has still to be worked out, the principle of the loan is right.

“It is also right that that the loan should be designed so that most borrowers should repay in full. A ‘leaky’ loan is very costly to the taxpayer.

“It is good news that the loan is not restricted to certain subjects. Governments always think they know what subjects are important – and governments are usually wrong.”

‘Step in the right direction’

The National Union of Students’ vice president, Megan Dunn, described the move to the BBC as a “major step in the right direction”.

“Creating a government-backed postgraduate loans scheme will make a fundamental difference to the lives and opportunities of students.

“Many postgraduates are currently funding their study through potentially disastrous measures such as credit cards, overdrafts and personal loans,” she said.

The British lecturers’ union UCU agreed it was a step in the right direction, but said ‘more radical ideas were needed’.

“It’s positive that the government has moved to address the current crisis in postgraduate funding, but encouraging people to accrue more debt is not the best way to attract the best and brightest into further study,” said the Union’s leader Sally Hunt.

“If we really want to expand the number of UK postgraduates, government must consider even more radical ideas such as restoring proper grants or writing off part of a student’s undergraduate debt when they complete a postgraduate course.”

Michael Gunn, chair of the Million+ group of universities, said that the announcement would help to reverse a decline in postgraduate study.

But he opposed the age limit, calling for the loans to be ‘extended to all who want to study for postgraduate qualifications’.

Available from 2016-17

The government-backed loans, worth up to £10,000, will be available from 2016-17 and will benefit 40,000 students. The proposals aim to bring an extra 10,000 students into postgraduate study.

Loans will be offered in any master’s subject, but only to students under the age of 30, and will be repaid concurrently with undergraduate loans.

There will be a consultation on the final loan details, but they could be charged at a higher rate than undergraduate loans, while remaining below commercial rates, said the BBC.

£10,000 postgraduate bursaries for 2015-16

As an interim measure to meet the expected further slump in postgraduate demand when the first cohort of undergraduates emerge from having paid £9,000 per-year tuition fees next year, HEFCE had already pledged to invest £50 million to stimulate the market.

As University World News reported in June, this follows a number of pilot projects to try to increase demand.

This will now take the form of ‘Ten thousand bursaries for ten thousand students in 2015’, to be paid for on a match-funded basis between HEFCE and higher education institutions, according to HEFCE.

HEFCE say they will write to institutions on 15 December to provide details of the distribution of bursaries and guidance on how they should be used, and to confirm details of a seminar on this to be held in January.

More at:

My earlier blog on why Britain needs action to reverse the fall in home postgraduate demand.

Government loans for postgrads are welcome, but unis must play their part | Guardian 3 December 2014

Autumn Statement: the experts respond | The Conversation 3 December 2014

Autumn Statement: Postgraduate loans of £10,000 | BBC 3 December 2014

Ten thousand bursaries for ten thousand students in 2015 | HEFCE 4 December 2014