Postgraduate study still “out of reach for many students” – Sutton Trust

While acknowledging that postgrad loans have helped social mobility, a new report from the Sutton Trust finds that better-off students are still more likely to embark on postgraduate life

Government loans designed to help low- and moderate-income students complete postgraduate studies have only been a qualified success, says the Sutton Trust.

Research published today (24 June) by the education charity finds that, while the loans have been responsible for reducing the gap in participation between working-class graduates and their more affluent peers, the latter are still more likely to embark on postgraduate life.

Academics from the University of York compared data from before the introduction of the loans in 2015, when students had to cover tuition fees and living costs themselves, with the years that followed.

They found that the proportion of working-class graduates progressing on to a taught masters more than doubled between 2013/14 and 2017/18, from 6% to 12.9%.

Although welcome, the figures should be seen in the context of wider postgrad growth, with the proportion of better-off students continuing their studies increasing from 8.6% to 14.2%.

Moreover, while attributing the rise in working-class postgraduates to the loans, the Sutton Trust notes that the apparent improvement in social ability is set against a background of people from working-class backgrounds being much less likely to opt for university education in the first place.

It also warns that any gains made are in danger of being negated by higher tuition fees.


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Postgraduate loans leave many of the costs of full-time postgraduate education having to be found elsewhere, particularly at the more prestigious institutions.

The total cost of study – including living costs – at a Golden Triangle university is currently more than £20,000, almost double the £11,200 maximum loan available in England for fees and maintenance.

Taking all of this into account, today’s report – ‘Inequality in the highest degree?’ – makes six recommendations:

  • Postgraduate funding in England should be reformed to remove financial barriers, with the support system covering full maintenance costs for students and full fee costs for all but the most expensive courses
  • Universities should extend efforts to widen access to postgraduate level
  • Regular publication by the Office for Students/Department for Education/devolved governments of data on widening participation to postgraduate study
  • In England, the OfS’ responsibility for fair access to undergraduate study should be extended to postgraduate level
  • Universities should ensure course fees are fair, with no application fees for postgraduate courses
  • Finding information on – and applying for – postgraduate courses should be clear and easy

“As rates of postgraduate study have increased, so too has the role of postgraduate study in promoting social mobility,” said Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chair of the Sutton Trust, and chair of the Education Endowment Foundation.

“But with postgraduate study costing over £20,000 a year it is out of reach for many students from poorer homes, who are already carrying a lot of undergraduate debt.

“The introduction of loans in 2015 was a welcome reform and has done much to improve access in the past few years. But the rising cost of courses at the most prestigious institutions is outpacing the loans available for young people, who also need to cover their living costs. We’d like to see grants for living costs introduced for lower-income students.”

We hope the government considers access to postgraduate courses as part of its lifelong learning agenda – Chantel Le Carpentier, Russell Group

In response to the new Sutton Trust research, Chantel Le Carpentier, policy analyst at the Russell Group, said:

“The Sutton Trust is right to highlight the need to tackle the barriers to low-income students progressing to postgraduate study. A high-quality postgraduate degree brings considerable benefits to individuals and the taxpayer through significant gains in lifetime earnings, as well as supporting the development of high-level skills that are vital to the economy.

“Russell Group universities have put in place a range of support and programmes to help those from disadvantaged backgrounds access and thrive in postgraduate study, including scholarships for underrepresented groups. Our work has found that with the right support and opportunities, outcomes for students at postgraduate level from underrepresented backgrounds can match those of their more advantaged counterparts.

“Postgraduate study is an important part of securing the pipeline of future skills the economy needs and we hope the government considers access to postgraduate courses as part of its lifelong learning agenda.”

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