Sunday, 5 February 2012

The Postgraduate Funding Gap

Perhaps now that I'm in my final year and juggling dissertations, essays and the small matter of graduate employment, I should stop making excuses for not blogging tout suite and accept that there may simply be more pressing matters. Regardless, here is a little blog that I've written which exists solely to moan about the funding gap of glacial proportions that prevents mere mortals from undertaking postgrad courses. Enjoy! (and then weep...)

There was once a time when undergraduate degrees were prized, and gave individuals a much worked-for first step on the ubiquitous ‘career ladder’. Without wishing to sound as if I’m lusting after a bygone era, these days are a thing of the past. Undergraduate degrees have become a pre-requisite for those wishing to enter the ‘professions’ and CVs that do not boast a degree often aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.

So how can students ensure that their applications stand out from the crowd? The solution has become, ironically, to stay in higher education and complete a postgraduate qualification. With graduate unemployment at a 16-year-high, it’s unsurprising that, according to the Higher Education Careers Service Unit (HECSU), there was a 7.4% rise in the demand for Master’s degrees in 2009/10. Many graduates see the addition of a postgraduate qualification to their CV as worth its weight in gold, literally.

The average cost of a Master’s degree in English hovers around the £4,500 mark, depending on the institution, whilst the price the Mathematics equivalent is marginally higher. Vocational Master’s courses often cost a lot more. My ambitions of pursuing a career in journalism experienced a vicious setback when I realised that the qualification would cost me £8,000 in tuition alone.

With the hike in undergraduate tuition fees receiving vast amounts of media coverage, it seems that postgraduate students, despite their rise in number, have all but been forgotten. The undergraduate notion of a ‘student loan’ is a thing of the past for postgrads, for whom there is simply no such thing. The government provides no funding for Master’s courses and most are forced to take out commercial loans, whilst the lucky ones turn to their parents for financial support. Limited numbers of scholarships are available to the brightest and best students but, as is increasingly obvious, when a Master’s qualification is the norm, small pots of funding just aren’t enough.

As if this pressure on the postgraduate student’s purse wasn’t enough, it seems likely that Master’s courses are going to bear the brunt of further fee rises. With Master’s course fees currently remaining uncapped, they’re the obvious target for universities hoping to recoup funding lost through government university cuts. Despite the rise in undergraduate fees, they still remain capped at £9,000, and institutions hoping to top-up their coffers aren’t blind to the fact that postgraduate qualifications offer the crude potential for limitless cash.

So what are the consequences of neglecting postgraduate funding? Well, I can’t see that it will be long before postgraduate admissions become another barometer of social immobility in this country. Without postgraduate loans or a significant increase in the amount of funding available, Master’s courses are a privilege of the rich, leaving less economically able but potentially more academically capable students high and dry.

With their current cuts agenda, it’s understandable that the coalition government has, thus far, chosen to turn a blind-eye to the problem of postgraduate funding. This, however, does not mean that the present situation is sustainable in a fair society. With the competition for graduate jobs getting fiercer, the postgraduate funding gap needs to be filled before the prospect of employment becomes as clinical as a cost/benefit analysis.

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