Just before Christmas, the Diamond Review on student finance and higher education funding in Wales published its Interim Report. The Review will now get on with developing its policy recommendations, submitting its final report to the Welsh Government’s Minister for Education and Skills in September (safely after the elections to the National Assembly for Wales in May).
The approach to postgraduates adopted in Wales has been significantly less generous than in other parts of the UK. From 2014-2015, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) has progressively restricted its financial support to part-time postgraduate taught programmes, and to postgraduate research provision. Moreover, the Welsh Government has not matched the UK Government’s introduction in England of postgraduate loans from 2016-2017.
The Interim Report makes clear in a succinct, 3-page section (out of 117 pages in total), that the Diamond Review acknowledges these funding issues. Considerable attention is paid to the NUS proposal to introduce in Wales an income-contingent loan scheme for taught postgraduate programmes.
As analysis conducted for the Learned Society of Wales shows, past patterns of postgraduate participation in Welsh universities parallel those in the UK as a whole. Over the longer-term, there has been a substantial growth in postgraduate numbers (by more than 80 per cent since the early 1990s), largely accounted for by the increase in postgraduate taught students. Since 2010-2011, this pattern has been reversed. There has been a decline of some 10 per cent, entirely attributable to a drop in the number of postgraduate taught students, especially on part-time programmes. Postgraduate research students have continued to increase over this recent period, albeit only modestly.
Hence, the principal area of decline has been in part-time, postgraduate taught numbers. These programmes are concentrated into directly ‘vocational’ subjects, such as business studies and education. The decline in these areas may well be attributable to the effects of wider economic conditions on the willingness of employers to support their employees’ postgraduate study, as much as anything within the higher education system itself. This also raises important questions as to how far potential students on this type of programme would be prepared to substitute incurring – further – personal debt for the employer support that has been withdrawn.
Perhaps the most difficult question with which the Diamond Review will have to grapple (at least in this context) is that of what the level of participation in postgraduate study should be in the future. This entails not only a consideration of empirical trends in participation, but also how this participation needs to change to meet the wider policy aims. Drawing heavily on an as yet unpublished analysis by Dr. Adam Wright of the NUS, the Interim Report rehearses the conventional justifications of the importance of increasing numbers of postgraduates, especially in terms of the need – particularly acute in Wales – of contributing to economic development through higher-level skills and research-based innovation. Interestingly, the argument is also made that growth in postgraduate programmes will counteract gender inequalities.
It is widely agreed that postgraduate study confers significant benefits not only on the individuals who participate, but also on the wider economy. The most robust evidence here relates to the individual benefits that accrue from the higher levels of earnings that those with postgraduate qualifications attract when compared with other equivalent individuals who have only undergraduate degrees. This postgraduate premium arises because of the higher levels of productivity associated with highly skilled employees. In the context of a shift to a ‘knowledge-based economy’, therefore, far from the declining trends that we have observed recently, the numbers of postgraduates should be increased over time.
However for some, postgraduate qualifications – in the context of intense competition for high-quality jobs – simply distinguish their holders from the increasingly large numbers of graduates. In other words, the benefits are individual, rather than accruing to the economy as a whole through genuinely higher levels of productivity.
What is crucial here is that the level of demand for higher-level skills cannot be assumed for every economy. In the case of the UK, there are substantial parts of the economy (sectoral and regional) where employers are not, in fact, seeking to recruit significant numbers of graduates, let alone individuals with postgraduate qualifications. This is certainly the case in Wales. This emphasizes the need to plan economic development carefully, to ensure that there really are high levels of demand for advanced skills of the kind that postgraduates provide.
Accordingly, there are significant individual benefits from postgraduate study; as well as important benefits to the wider economy, given the right circumstances. On both counts, it is important that access to postgraduate education is open to as wide a cross-section of society as possible. To the extent that wider economic benefits are achieved, it is essential that the economy is able to draw upon the full range of available talents. In respect of individual benefits, it is simply a matter of social justice that everyone should have the opportunity to access advanced level study.
The reality is rather different, of course. The social composition of the postgraduate population is closely related to that of the undergraduate population, from which postgraduates are overwhelmingly recruited. Hence, the growth in undergraduate participation by women and by some ethnic minorities has filtered through to the postgraduate level too (albeit not across all subjects and less clearly in postgraduate research programmes). However, as with undergraduates, individuals from working-class backgrounds remain significantly under-represented in postgraduate programmes; and those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are especially so.
These inequalities are important for reasons of both efficiency and equity: significant talent is not being used; and individuals are being denied a fair level of access to opportunities that will significantly affect their wider life-chances. It is imperative, therefore, that the means are found to construct avenues of entry to postgraduate provision that reflect more clearly equality of opportunity.
It remains to be seen how the Diamond Review will address these complex issues in their policy recommendations. The introduction of a postgraduate loans scheme offers one possibility here. However, as the Learned Society of Wales has argued for some considerable time, achieving the levels of postgraduate participation necessary to reap the benefits of enhanced high-level skills will require effectively addressing the wider problem of the funding of universities in Wales, which currently falls some way below the rest of the UK.
Far from tackling this issue, in its draft budget proposals released in December, the Welsh Government announced a £42 million cut in its allocation to HEFCW (32% of its overall budget), prioritising the subsidy of undergraduate tuition fees at the expense of other key government priorities, including the support of postgraduate programmes. Earlier this month, following intensive lobbying by the universities, the Welsh Government reversed much of this proposed cut, restoring some £21 million to HEFCW and finding some £10 million to support particular areas of provision, including research.
Nevertheless, this episode emphasises the vulnerability of funding for Welsh higher education. More specifically, whilst there is a widespread consensus about the need for higher levels of skills in the Welsh economy, the capacity of the universities in Wales to deliver the postgraduate programmes necessary to produce them, remains highly precarious.