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The postgraduate premium formula is not for all

The Scottish Funding Council is to be congratulated for releasing a report this week on the topic of access to postgraduate studies. It is first to recognise that there are barriers in the way of less advantaged students progressing. Also, this has a considerable knock-on effect on those students entering many careers and professions. However, it is disappointing that the opportunity to address the thorny issue of meagre student finance at postgraduate level was not taken. The system at postgraduate level is overtly middle class and biased. One can only conclude that this is a deliberate incentive for some and a deliberate barrier for others. The current formula is not very effective and even toxic to some student's aspirations. To foster the idea of social mobility and ‘levelling up’ this barrier must be removed.

The Scottish Funding Council (SFC) has been very proactive in trying to promote the case for education in improving social mobility. It is in this context that the latest report from its 'Commissioner for Fair Access' on post-graduate courses comes as a great disappointment. ‘Access to postgraduate study - representation and destinations: discussion paper’ (pdf) is a 20-page document that relies mostly on Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data up to 2016/17 *(see note 1). The idea of looking more closely at this issue arises from observations made in the 2016 review by the Commission on Widening Access (CoWA) of fairness in the education system in Scotland ‘A Blueprint for Fairness: Final Report of the Commission on Widening Access’ (pdf). The recommendation then was to “consider what further work is required to support equal outcomes after study for those from disadvantaged backgrounds”. Almost four years later the current short report is the outcome. The observation that professions requiring post-graduate study tend to form a barrier to those from less advantaged backgrounds is hardly surprising or new. Indeed, the results are likely to be equally as pertinent to postgraduate studies across the UK.

What the SFC found.

Here the commission has set out to ask two main questions. 
Firstly, “Are students from deprived areas underrepresented in postgraduate study and if so, to what extent is this linked to other factors, such as subject studied, that have an effect on whether a graduate progresses from first degree to postgraduate study?” 
Secondly, “Are postgraduate leavers from deprived areas less likely than other students to find a professional level job and if so, is this true when accounting for institution attended, subject studied and qualification type?”

By disadvantaged areas, the Commission and the SFC mean the SIMD Quintile 1 areas across Scotland. These are the 20% most deprived identified by the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation2 (SIMD). This is a more detailed and sophisticated methodology covering smaller areas of the population than the widely criticised Participitation of Local Areas (POLAR) methodology used elsewhere in the UK. (see also TEFS 22nd April 2019 ‘POLAR whitewash fails to cover all surfaces’).

The results show clearly that students from SIMD Quintile 1 (Q1) areas are indeed less likely to progress to postgraduate studies. Of course, they were also less likely to go to a university in the first place. The knock-on effect is that they are also less likely to enter many professions. This is especially the case for Law but also in the sciences and mathematics. Medicine was excluded as this has a normal progression in training that extends over many years.

The results of analysing HESA data between 2013 and 2017 showed that SIMD Q1 students are grossly underrepresented in postgraduate studies (12.5% compared to the most advantaged Q5 students at 30.7%). This is worse than at the undergraduate level where the figures are 15.6% and 28.2% respectively. However, it is interesting that the progression rates of both are significantly different but not as widely divided. SIMD Q1 students progress at a respectable 14.9% compared to 17.8% for SIMD Q5 students. However, the trend is obviously towards more advantaged students progressing.

What are the causes?

It is here that the report disappoints by making a very significant omission. The conclusion seems to be that fewer disadvantaged students take undergraduate courses that have postgraduate requirements to enter the professions. Law is a fine example of this. Also, this applies to the sciences and mathematics that tend to have higher postgraduate progression rates overall. The result is that PhD qualifications are becoming the main way to advance a career in the so-called STEM subjects.

Degree outcomes were also considered to be a factor. Simply put, it is already established that students from SIMD Q1 areas are much more likely to obtain an unclassified degree and much less likely to obtain a 2:1 or above. The 2.1 degree classification hurdle is a major barrier to PhD entry for funded positions and precludes many students. It is likely that students qualified at a high level from one of the research-intensive institutions are more likely to make progress.

Finance is the missing link.

Totally missing from the report is the idea that students from less advantaged backgrounds might not have enough funds to go further. It’s a much simpler reason than those offered in the commission's report. The missing link not addressed is money. Surely disadvantaged students might shy away from degrees that progress for more years at even greater expense and debt. Also, they are likely to owe more after their first degree and borrowing even more for progress as a postgraduate is an obvious barrier. Many initially opted to study where they can get a part-time job to supplement their income and this is often nearer to home. However postgraduate studies may be more distant, more onerous and more time-consuming. Certainly, a laboratory science PhD is very demanding in time and effort. Thus, part-time jobs are precluded at this level.

Then there is the issue of government support for postgraduate studies. A student with fewer advantages, and without family support, only has the option to compete for a limited number of funded positions. Barring that, there are few other ways forward in Scotland. The fees for PhD positions could be as high as £8,000**(see note 2) and there is no prospect of supplementing this with part-time work. Some Masters courses may be less onerous but the same restrictions are often in play.

The Scottish government offers the possibility of a total postgraduate loan of £10,000 for one year only to be divided between fees (£5,500) and living expenses (£4,500). However, typical fees can vary between around £5,000 and up to over £20,000 for some courses. Their own analysis from 2017 ‘A New Social Contract for Students - Fairness, Parity and Clarity’ (see TEFS 22nd November 2017 ‘Can Scotland afford to be brave with student support and fees?’ ) showed that at least £8,100 was needed for basic living expenses per year. The result of not offering this at any level is a massive shortfall that can only be made up by their family. To add to the problem, the postgraduate loans are not means-tested. Therefore, well off families, who can fund the positions for their children, find that the government helps them by offering loans to defer some of the payments. The result is better off students are attracted whilst less well-off students are precluded. The loan will not come close to supporting  self-funding a PhD position

The situation in England is a bit better for postgraduate loans. There, a student can currently borrow a postgraduate Masters loan of £10,906. In STEM subjects, most PhD students compete for UK Research Council studentships that students from all over the UK can apply for. But there are a limited number of these and they are part of a wider science and technology strategy. However, an alternative in England would be to take up the postgraduate doctoral loan that is currently £25,700. But this will have to stretch for up to four years which means that other sources of funding must be found. To stress again, the workload pressure determines that part-time jobs are not an option. Therefore, only those supported by their family can seriously take up this option.

The conclusion must be that the system of post-graduate support is primarily geared to offering incentives for those supported by better-off families.

The Master’s 'leg up'.

Another phenomenon that has been about for years is the idea of seeking to do a Masters degree to get a 'leg up' the ladder. These courses have expanded over recent years to become a significant source of income for universities. I have observed several and conclude that some are excellent. They set high entry standards and attract many foreign students. But others fall into the category of being a ‘cash cow’ as some insiders call them. Effectively they take anyone who can pay. This often includes those with lower class 2.2. undergraduate degrees who are trying to redeem themselves. Some of these are genuinely hardworking and talented, usually have extenuating circumstances from their first degree and then excel at Masters level. But others are less motivated and rely on a combination of more loans and family to progress with more hope than application. I am of the opinion that all Masters programmes should be accredited more rigorously and set a high standard to reflect the ‘additional’ value that they bring. They should not be a means to buy a way out of past failures.

A personal observation.

When I started my PhD research in Cardiff in 1977, I was funded by the then Science Research Council. This was a highly competitive award that required a good degree class. When completing my final undergraduate year, I applied for numerous similar positions to try to secure a place. I spread my campaign across the UK to increase my chances of success. I was completing my undergraduate degree with no financial support from family and I was effectively broke. In the end, I was offered six different positions, including Biochemistry at Cambridge, but chose Cardiff instead. The decision was not entirely a scientific one as I also calculated that I could not afford to live in Cambridge on the SRC stipend alone and without family support. Part-time jobbing was out of the question in the face of the intensive laboratory science challenge ahead. However, I found that my cheap 'private landlord accommodation' in Cardiff was poor and presented an ‘interesting’ challenge in a deprived area of the city. 

But the main shock was to find some other students living much better lives as PhD hopefuls. They were ‘self-funded’. I had not considered this as a possible option and genuinely did not expect to see it. In my world, a PhD position was achieved by competing for places with others who were in receipt of a similar degree classification, not by purchasing an entry ticket. One stood out especially. He came from a very advantaged background in the UK and had achieved a 2.2 degree. His father was fully funding his PhD and he was living in accommodation that seriously outclassed mine. I thrived on the scientific challenge and progressed; I don’t know what happened to him as I had completed and departed while he was still there. I suspect that the family investment might not have paid off.

To conclude.

The general conclusion must be that government financial support for independent postgraduate studies in the UK is not an option for students with no family resources. It effectively attracts the better off with loans to allow them to defer payments. They have the option of progressing independently whilst the less well-off must compete for a limited number of funded positions. The system at postgraduate level is overtly middle class and biased. One can only conclude that this is a deliberate incentive for some and a deliberate barrier for others. To foster the idea of social mobility and ‘levelling up’ this barrier must be removed.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

*Note 1: The progression analysis was carried out using four years of data (2013/14 to 2016/17) from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey. This is the latest information available. DLHE was discontinued by HESA following the 2016/17 leaver cohort and has been replaced by the Graduate Outcomes survey. The Graduate Outcomes survey collects information on leavers around 15 months after they complete their studies.

**Note 2: The UK Research Office indicative fee is £4,327. However "While institutions are not regulated in terms of the fees they charge for postgraduate degree programmes, any difference between the Research Council fee-payment level and what an institution charges should not be met by the student". Many institutions charge fees at a much higher level depending on the course. For example, the University of Edinburgh has a wide range of fees for different research qualifications.

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