In principle, nothing.
As it stands, the plan to completely overhaul higher education student finance (HESF) and introduce loans for modularised undergraduate learning (at levels 4-6) leaves postgraduate study (at level 7 and beyond) completely untouched.
To extend Mike Ratcliffe’s wonderful exploration of the government’s “flexi travel card” metaphor, the lifelong learning entitlement (LLE) is a railcard that only travels so far – with master’s and doctoral level study left on an entirely different network.
The recent LLE consultation response does acknowledge the question of whether support should extend to postgraduate programmes. Still, the only answers offered concern the continuation of undergraduate funding for PGCE and integrated master’s qualifications.
I think this is both a missed opportunity and – potentially – a problem. To understand this, it’s worth considering why a PG LLE would make sense for students and why it doesn’t make sense for policymakers. I’m going to focus on level 7 – postgraduate taught (PGT) study because loan-funding level 8 – postgraduate research (PGR) is less realistic and, so far as we can tell, less successful (UK PhD enrolments actually fell the year after a doctoral loan was introduced and the scheme wasn’t an apparent hit with students).
Postgraduate study already is lifelong learning
Many people who go on to a master’s level programme are recent graduates. Many more are not. In fact, when plans for a PG student loan were announced, National Union of Students successfully campaigned against a proposed age limit of 30 years old. They were right to do so – 30+ is now the largest and most robust PG Home cohort.
PG study is also already somewhat modular. Many master’s contain PG certificate or diploma pathways offering smaller amounts of further learning. Indeed, the practice of topping up one of these to a more substantial qualification is sufficiently well-established for the government to prohibit students from taking out a PG loan for it.
That’s right: the modularised “stop-and-go” learning approach to undergraduate learning that the LLE introduces is something we specifically do not fund at PG level.
All of this is neither holistic nor helpful. But there is a reason for it.
The master’s money tree
Extending the LLE to level 7 could become very expensive very quickly. Like the HESF it will eventually replace, the LLE includes a tuition loan linked directly to a capped fee (now to be calculated, somehow, per module or credit).
With no such cap on PG fees, an LLE here would effectively become a blank cheque. Or it would need to be as arbitrary as the current PGL – the value of which is currently being eroded – if not eviscerated – by inflation in PG fees and, well, everything else.
Grasp the nettle
Therefore, extending the LLE to PG would require wholesale reform of fees and funding streams at level 7. This would probably need to include some sort of fee cap with a linked loan offering a sufficient resource unit across all kinds of subject areas.
It’s complicated. And it still wouldn’t be enough. Because PGT fees – being pretty much the only domestic unit of resource lever a university can pull – currently cross-subsidise other areas of university activity, including UG provision
So, as of now, fixing PG means also fixing UG so as not to rely on it. At the risk of being understated, this is quite a big ask.
But, as has been pointed out, this is already the most significant reform to higher education student finance in a decade, with genuinely laudable goals and ambitions. Are we missing an opportunity to think even bigger and finally reconcile the oddities of UG and PG fees and funding within a system that genuinely is lifelong?
Or get stung?
The risk in doing nothing is that the current LLE could create perverse incentives against PG study.
If we think ahead a decade to 2033 – six years after the LLE launch for HE courses.
A hypothetical graduate has completed three years of undergraduate study, has a year’s worth of funding left and, having worked for a bit, wants to benefit from some additional courses in data analysis – precisely the sort of thing the LLE is designed to enable.
They could enrol on a full MSc (remember, there’s no funding for shorter PGCert or PGDip options), try to balance work and study for 1-2 years(!) and get a loan that most likely covers neither their fees nor their living costs.
Or, they could use the LLE to enrol in a module or two of BSc level learning, attend classes at their local university for a couple of terms and get a loan that covers their total fees, plus another contributing to maintenance.
Which would you choose? And what’s the practical future of PGT home provision in that scenario?
There may be hope. We finally got an income-contingent PGL in 2016, four years after the current (soon-to-be previous) UG system was introduced.
Maybe a future government can pick up the LLE and take it further. Maybe someone smart is already thinking about this. Or at least, they should be.