Chair Quarterly: The hot-potato” that is taught postgraduate funding

Council Chair, Prof Mick Fuller writes his quarterly blog regarding menacing issues in the Postgraduate Education sector. 

Chair Quarterly: The hot-potato” that is taught postgraduate funding

Back in the UKCGE summer conference 2012 the alarm bells were being rung concerning the future of postgraduate funding particularly with respect to PGT funding. Geoff Whitty of the Higher Education Committee (HEC) and his team engaged delegates in discussions regarding various aspects of the PG landscape and their subsequent report became one of a shower of reports and statements to appear in recent months which warned of a Perfect Storm” brewing:

The Postgraduate Premium – The Sutton Trust – J. Lindley & S. Machin (Feb 2013)

Postgraduate Education: an independent inquiry — The Higher Education Commission (2012)

Steps towards a fairer system of postgraduate taught funding in England – the NUS (2012)

Postgraduate funding: the neglected dimension — British Academy (July 2012)

The Postgraduate Crisis – 1994 Group (February 2012)

Mastering postgraduate funding – CentreForum – T. Leunig (2011)

A Postgraduate Strategy for Britain: Expanding Excellence, Innovation and Opportunity – Million + Group (March 2010)

PG was also mentioned (all but briefly) in the Browne report (2010) and the White Paper and so has stimulated Government and Parliament to engage with the Postgraduate issues like never before. HEFCE, BIS, UUK and RCUK have been galvanised to gather more evidence and several ongoing studies have been commissioned and on the verge of reporting back.

RCUK longitudinal doctoral impact in the workplace study

BIS commissioned study (through IFF Research) to understand student demand for postgraduate study

HEFCE study on postgraduate education in England (projected publication date May 2013)

UUK commissioned study into Employer Engagement with PGT provision

Also a number of roundtable discussions and debates have been held or about to be held with the aim of providing government with the information it needs to shape the pg sector for the future.

Postgraduate taught education provision in England — HEFCE Roundtable – Centrepoint, 23rd January 2013

A pg loans system for the UK — CentreForum and NUS policy roundtable – House of Commons 5th March 2013

A PG strategy for England – House of Lords 7th May 2013

The UKCGE has been involved in these discussions and has been representing its members though its Chair (Prof Mick Fuller) who has attended many of the meetings. Whilst we still await decisions on high level policy it is clear that the funding regime for pgt will be under threat from 2013 onwards as BIS and HEFCE face another CSR (comprehensive spending review) with a seemingly inevitable budget cut. 

There was good news from HEFCE in early 2012 when they announced the continued funding of PGT courses at HEI’s and in the latest statement from HEFCE (, which is an interim statement pending the publication of their report in May 2013, there is an ongoing commitment to PGT funding in an uncapped market (i.e. no student number controls). But despite this there is still a decline in PGT recruitment across the sector that is worrying many Universities. Aside from a decline in funding of postgraduate teaching qualifications (PGCE) from the TDA (£30M to just £3M) there is also a decline in self-funded PT PGT numbers. In some cases these are being replaced or supplemented by overseas recruitment to PGT courses but the decline in UK pgt numbers threatens the long-term supply of UK masters graduates to the professions and to academia.

But what is causing this decline and is it set to get worse?? Definitive data about intentions to study for PGT” is difficult to obtain but anecdotal feedback paints a similar picture across many HEI’s – the PGT market is largely self-funded and many people can’t afford it at present! This is hardly likely to get better soon and by the time that it does, many courses will have been closed down by HEI’s and the portfolio offer” by Universities will have shrunk. In the interim, in a bid to make PGT courses with small numbers viable, Universities are likely to raise their fees to try and generate enough income to sustain the provision. But raising fees at a time when self-funded students don’t have enough money to spare is hardly a recipe for increasing recruitment!

There is also a knock-on effect of this squeeze on PGT recruitment and this is a return to the bad old days” of only the well-off can afford to do it. This is completely counter to widening participation agendas and social mobility – this is a vexing question and one that hits hard at the sector’s stated ambitions on social mobility.

It is probably this last point that will prove to be the most persuasive in the ongoing debate.

Some overall conclusions of the debate to date are:

  1. Universities can expect to receive ongoing HEFCE funding for pgt for the foreseeable future (the next 2 — 3 years) for subjects in bands A to C.
  2. Increases in HEFCE funding or subsidy of the PGT sector is totally unrealistic.
  3. Loans for UK PGT students may be the way forward but the government will want the Private sector (Banks and the Professions) to make a substantial (and possibly a full) contribution to a loans scheme. It is unlikely that the government has an appetite for a loans scheme, despite the cost-neutral fiscal modelling carried out by the NUS and CentreForum.
  4. What is missing from the whole discussion is a sound Planning Policy. 

How many postgraduate degree holders does the UK need in industry and in the public sector? In other words who actually needs them and shouldn’t these be those who pay for them? It is interesting to note that European Policy on this issue identifies that for the Knowledge Economy the number of pg degree holders needs to rise substantially and most developing economy policies identify upward progress by an increase in the number of pg degrees in society. Maybe we have reached the end of the road in the UK for the massification of higher education and are returning to an elite system again? If so, then some HEI’s need to be on their guard and need to rethink their development planning! 

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