A manifesto for unlocking PGT potential

Mark Bennett thinks we don't talk enough about the advantages of postgraduate study. He suggests some policy tweaks that could unleash a higher learning revolution

Mark Bennett is Director (Audience & Editorial) at FindAUniversity Ltd.

Let’s be realistic: the likelihood of postgraduate taught (PGT) home provision being a major policy focus (let alone a manifesto item) ahead of the next election is slim.

PGT international could be present by proxy in discussions of migration, but the size and shape of domestic participation in masters-level study will struggle to compete with the vexed question of undergraduate funding.

This will be a shame, not simply because there is much to be addressed with respect to PGT home. But also because there are significant opportunities to be realised in doing so.

We have, after all, approached the (in)famous target of 50 per cent participation in higher education. Which means, amongst other things, that around 50 per cent of our workforce could soon be graduates and eligible, should they wish, for further postgraduate participation in higher education.

This clearly isn’t happening, despite (or perhaps because of) policies relating to lifelong learning which take no account of PG.

So what would it take to change that? And how hard would it actually be?

Make it lifelong (and stop worrying how long it is)

According to HESA, around 51 per cent of PGT Home enrolments as of 2021-22 were aged 30+. Yet Keystone Education Group’s Pulse Survey data (based on responses from over 8,000 prospective students a month) shows that around 60 per cent of the searching audience in Q1 2024 are 35 plus. A lot of this audience isn’t getting through.

One of several explanations for that is a funding system that biases towards full intensive Masters degrees. This is the first thing to be fixed.

By far the simplest option would simply be to extend the current postgraduate loan to cover PGCert and PGDip qualifications. At a stroke this would enable working graduates to take on further training either in short career breaks or alongside employment. Gone would be the slightly silly insistence that someone who wants to learn about Data Analytics (because it’s 2024 and that feels relevant to almost everything) needs to do a full MSc to do so.

This would involve issuing more loans, but it’s reasonable to assume this kind of expansion won’t harm the already low RAB charge for PG loans.

Another option would be to extend the lifelong learning entitlement (LLE) above level 6 and this does make sense if we see full modularisation and transfer as the direction of travel for HE overall. But the above can be done more or less immediately.

End perverse penalties for postgrad participation

As it stands, simply being entitled to take out a postgraduate loan has an impact on an individual’s entitlement to benefits. The simplest and, I think, most egregious example of this is that 30 per cent of the current Student Finance England loan (around £4,000) counts as income when working out universal credit and reduces someone’s entitlement accordingly. None of this is particularly easy to comprehend or calculate, either.

Of course, benefit eligibility is an issue for undergraduate students too (and just as questionable) but the impact is likely to be greater in dissuading and/or penalising older working-age postgraduates.

Compounding this is the fact that, unlike undergraduates, postgraduates aren’t normally eligible for a childcare grant – despite being more likely to have dependent children.

Take positive action

Postgraduate interest is booming in fields like artificial intelligence (which more than doubled its search interest on our UK search and discovery platforms during 2023). Another look at HESA data reveals that enrolments for its parent field – computing – were 69 per cent male between 2019-20 and 2021-22. Data on our searching audience suggests the gender balance for prospective students could be a lot more equitable than this with only a 59 per cent bias towards men.

Again, this indicates an audience that isn’t necessarily making it through to enrolment. There are examples like this across different disciplines, so what can we do about them?

Options might include targeted funding to reach under-represented audiences, as well as campaigns to raise awareness of those who are studying successfully.

As it stands, the majority of students aren’t eligible for a postgraduate loan if they already have a masters’ degree, penalising anyone who wishes to study further at postgraduate level later in their career.

This simply doesn’t make any sense if we view postgraduate study (as we should) as a source of lifelong learning and continuing professional development. Particularly if we do (as we should) unlock access to loans for shorter certificates and diplomas.

Few of these changes I’m contemplating here are complicated – at least as higher education policy goes – and I’d also suggest that few are controversial. We’re speaking, after all, of investing in the UK workforce, not excluding working parents from that and encouraging more people into STEM. The complicated bits – fee inflation and the actual value of the student loan can wait… for now.

3 responses to “A manifesto for unlocking PGT potential

  1. Some good insight especially around the the move away from intensive Master’s Programmes. I would also advocate for more block teaching as well. During a period of maternity leave, I underwent an innovate Master’s programme that would not have been feasible for myself and my family if it were not for block teaching. There is demand for this. Sadly having children is a major contributor to the gendered glass ceiling and the gendered wage gap. While this needs to be urgently addressed on a systematic scale, women could use this time to upskill to help mitigate these societal impacts on their personal lives if programmes were set up differently (what I call Mummy Master’s) .

    Implications for benefits (especially around childcare) for advanced university study also needs to be addressed. After obtaining my Masters, I won a studentship to do my PhD. I did not realise that while the studentship came with limitations on how much outside work I could take on, it was not considered to be “working” for the purpose of childcare benefits. Trying to balance fulltime childcare with fulltime PhDhood was unsustainable in the long run and this was a major factor is dropping out from the PhD programme.

  2. Couldn’t agree more Sara. The lack of clarity over timetables is itself a massive barrier for a lot of students – hard to commit to studying alongside work if you don’t yet know what the time commitment and schedule looks like.

    I’d hope that extending finance to Certificate/Diploma courses would underpin more provision in these areas and encourage universities to make that provision more accessible.

  3. Let’s try to engage with older people who can still learn new things (!), and continue to contribute to society in many ways. I began my PhD when I was 66 and was awarded it a few days after my 70th birthday.

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