Professor Andrew Hamilton, Oxford University’s Vice-Chancellor, has welcomed a new report which suggests that one-year postgraduate courses should be funded by government loans.
Under the report’s proposals, the government would lend prospective students £10,000 up front, and then reclaim it via the tax system. Students would only begin repaying their loans once they were earning an annual salary of £15,000.
The Vice-Chancellor described the report, which was produced by the CentreForum think tank, as “a timely contribution to the vital policy issue of UK graduate funding”, and though not wholeheartedly endorsing the scheme, said, “I hope that it will be given serious consideration”.
Dr Tim Leunig, author of the report and reader in Economic History at the London School of Economics, dismissed the idea that the scheme is economically inviable. He said, “People who graduate with a first or 2:1 and have a masters degree overwhelmingly earn good incomes later on.
“As such they are a relatively safe bet to invest in. That is why this scheme is unlikely to lead to large losses for government.”
Jim O’Connell, OUSU’s Vice-President for Graduates, gave cautious support to the proposals, describing Dr Leunig’s plan as “a good start.” He told Cherwell that “obtaining funding for a masters degree is often incredibly difficult” and stressed the importance of encouraging postgraduate courses “at a time when graduate courses are increasingly needed for access to the professions and to enable our workforce to compete globally.”
A White Paper released by the government in June 2011 appeared to rule out any changes to the graduate funding system, saying, “At this stage, we propose no further changes to how taught postgraduates are funded.”
However, the Universities and Science Minister David Willets called the recent report “the latest in a series of timely and thought-provoking reports on higher education from CentreForum”, and promised, “We will consider the recommendations carefully.”
Funding is a problem for many postgraduate students in Oxford. Lotty Davies, a current masters student, told Cherwell that for her course “there isn’t really a system in place that means I could get funding.” As a result, she said, she is “burning through savings and also working a part-time job at the same time.”
Davies added that if a loan had been available, “there would be more security this year in terms of making rent and being able to eat all year.” She feels that a masters is important to her career, claiming, “other people are trying to get work in the area without a masters and finding it near impossible.”
Alex du Sautoy, a current finalist at Wadham, claimed that financial issues are crucial to his decision of whether or not to carrying on studying next year, telling Cherwell, “When I’m trying to decide whether to apply for masters or to look towards the working world, pretty much the only thing holding me back from a masters is the problem of funding.”
He argued that a government loan would be “far more manageable” than a commercial one, saying, “A lot of people doing postgraduate study get development loans of up to £10,000 which require you to start paying back the next year. This puts a lot more pressure on the student to find a more or less well paying job straight after finishing.”
Some postgraduates, however, had reservations about the proposals. Sam Bowers pointed out that “Master’s degrees tend to be a profit-making enterprise for universities” and asked, “would all these extra degrees offer value for money?”
Helen Tanqueray, meanwhile, questioned the wisdom of expanding the number of masters degrees on offer, saying, “it may start to degrade the perceived worth of a masters.”
Particularly controversial is the question of whether humanities and science postgraduate courses should receive equal funding is particularly controversial, as humanities funding is particularly hard to find at present.
Third year physicist Brandon Jeffrey argued that science masters are more essential for students than those in humanities, saying, “I don’t see much difference between a bachelors and masters in arts, to further knowledge in sciences you need a masters.”
Biochemistry researcher and masters graduate Eleanor Williams disagreed, saying, “I think that loans should be on offer to both arts and science subjects.”