Nobody has any idea what proper postgraduate funding should look like

With changes to the Welsh model of postgraduate funding, there is no longer a UK approach that takes the cost of study into account. Mark Bennett asks why

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

You may have spotted a change coming to UK postgraduate funding next year.

It’s happening in Wales but it shines a light on an ongoing problem for UK HE overall.

A quick history lesson

England introduced a master’s loan in 2016. It’s paid to the student to help cover fees and/or living costs, but bears no relation to either and has been eroded by inflation in both.

Scotland introduced a master’s loan in 2017 (also covers PGDip). It includes a payment to the university for fees and a payment to the student for living costs. Both are arbitrary and easily leave a shortfall.

Northern Ireland introduced a master’s loan in 2017 (also covers PGCert & PGDip). It’s paid to the university for fees and necessarily leaves a shortfall for maintenance (if not fees too).

Wales introduced a combined master’s loan and grant in 2017 (along with various supplementary funding). It was comfortably the most generous scheme and also the fairest, being the only one with a means-tested component.

But, from 2024-25, the Welsh scheme will revert to a standard loan, presumably at the same value but no longer with any means-tested grant. Students who need most support will get less support.

This matters for reasons beyond the obvious.

One size fits all

Firstly, the abandonment of Wales’s attempt to take account of the different levels of need amongst postgraduate students means it’s no longer an example for the rest of the UK (if anybody was paying attention).

We’re therefore left with a universal one-size-fits-all funding approach to the most diverse part of the UK sector. We recognise that UG may need different levels of support and work this out largely based on parental income (i.e. assuming students are mostly school leavers). But for PG, where circumstances are far more diverse, we just offer an arbitrary amount.

If you’re a 21-year-old with a pile of undergraduate debt and the hope that Mum and Dad might still pop something in the bank for you now and then… you get a student loan for your Masters.

If you’re a 29-year-old aspiring management professional with a decent salary, some savings and a supportive employer… you get a student loan for your Masters.

If you’re a 34-year-old single-parent looking to retrain and reskill whilst working part-time to help with rent and childcare… you get a student loan for your Masters (but probably not for a shorter PG course and just being eligible for that loan could impact any benefits you’re entitled to).

But what size fits all?

Here’s the thing: having similar schemes all offering slightly different amounts of loan to support someone doing a master’s implies that nobody actually has any idea what’s actually required to support somebody doing a Masters.

You might argue that UG has a similar problem, but at least there we’ve agreed there’s a nominal amount a university needs in order to provide a year of study and a nominal amount someone needs to live on during said year with the state facilitating both in some form.

At PG we now have four increasingly arbitrary amounts offered to students on the luck of three-years’-most-recent residency. None has ever borne any real relation to what a university is allowed or encouraged to charge for a level 7 course and, as of the Welsh changes in 2024, none will make any attempt to consider what it costs a particular student to study that course.

I don’t wish to be unfair – I’ve met hard-working people designing and implementing these schemes, all of which have increased (at different rates and cadences) since being introduced.

But it feels like we’re holding our hands up and saying “dunno” at a time when postgraduate participation may be falling.

So, what can we do?

First, recognise the problem. Paradoxically, the Welsh changes may help by comparing the impact of a means-tested grant and loan scheme with a more arbitrary successor. Seeing how and where participation falls will tell us what impact this lever could have if (re)installed elsewhere.

We also need to recognise the opportunity. Just look at range of fields being transformed by AI and data science (i.e. all of them). We don’t have a massive backlog of AI and data science graduates, but we have huge levels of interest amongst talented graduates who could transition into them with the right training and support at masters level. And the same will be true for whatever comes next.

The best way to do the above in England would probably be through the lifelong learning entitlement (LLE). Bizarrely, this ‘lifelong learning’ doesn’t currently include postgraduate study, but it could evolve to do so.

This surely has to be one of the best answers to another question we’ve never really answered since introducing the funding: “what’s a master’s for”? With some exceptions, it generally isn’t a career prerequisite and – for most – it isn’t a step on to doctoral work (which has its own problems). But study at level 7 can and should be career enhancing.

After all, if an increasing proportion of our population are going to be graduates who will also need to reskill and retrain during complex careers… there’s an obvious role for postgraduate study to play, if we let it.

2 responses to “Nobody has any idea what proper postgraduate funding should look like

  1. Great piece Mark and absolutely agree but as discussions I have had at national level, there is no desire to include it in the discussion. Enabling the LLE to be used for PGT modules will help those who do not want or need to do a PGT course engage in modules that support them in the workplace such as IT (Chatgpt). It is shortsighted especially as you highlight, UK dom participation seems to be declining like it did after 2011.

  2. “what’s a master’s for”? Unfortunately this question is not answered above.

    The big increase in the number of taught masters courses seems to be in a limited number of Universities with a majority of overseas students studying a very limited number of subjects.

    The evidence seems to point towards the purpose being to increase University incomes at the lowest possible cost. The subjects covered are often marketing, business studies, IT and digital studies. Mainly with a classroom and on line delivery to keep down costs.

    However, there are also some in engineering, which I consider to be a more suitable subject.

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