Inequalities In Postgraduate Education: Is Our System Broken?

With loans available for undergraduate degrees and a vast array of bursaries, some might say that inequality in the higher education sector is a thing of the past. After all, you don’t have to pay back tuition right away, and for many industries an undergraduate degree is all you need to get the job of your dreams, right? Wrong.

The complexity of the modern job market coupled with the fact that some industries need more qualifications than a Bachelor’s means that even when you graduate, there may still be hoops you need to jump through before you can get your dream career.

And, unfortunately, these hoops are wrapped in privilege and inaccessibility.

Currently, Student Finance England merely offer a blanket £11,222 loan to cover both tuition and living expenses. For students like English finalist Beth, this simply isn’t enough:

“I briefly considered applying but as soon as I saw the amount of financial support SFE provide I realised it wouldn’t be possible as my parents can’t afford to provide financial support. I wouldn’t be able to afford rent, books, food and a social life at all based on my work salary – even if I significantly increased my hours.”

Meanwhile, Politics and International Relations graduate Emily noted how this blanket loan is especially ineffective in the face of dramatic price variations per course. Unlike undergraduate degrees, Master’s tuition fees aren’t capped at £9,250:

“When searching for Master’s courses, the cost ranges greatly. Keeping in mind the rising cost of living and the small government loan, on top of my existing student debt, choosing a Master’s that was going to provide me with the qualification, skills and networking opportunities to get a decent job on the other side was extremely overwhelming. It seems ridiculous that one university can charge £28,000 and another £7,000. What does that extra £21,000 get you?”

The lack of financial support in postgraduate studies is especially highlighted when one considers those students who have to rely predominately on their own income in order to make ends meet. As demonstrated by the experience of PGCE student Ciara, the financial stress and anxiety self-funded postgraduate students face is a widely-faced yet unreported problem:

“When I started my PGCE, I was struggling to maintain that balance of full-time study and part time work. Eventually, I had to give up working to focus on my training, which did massively impact my income and it caused a lot of anxiety for me as I have never not worked whilst studying. Although I was able to receive a student loan to cover some of my expenses, it was still a case of making sure I was really saving where I could. […] I think if I didn’t work while studying my undergraduate, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to go straight into the PGCE.”

The fact that this small Government loan isn’t even available for international students furthers this gap in opportunity and accessibility – and it isn’t just Master’s either. As one international postgraduate points out, visa restrictions coupled with the lack of funding in some of the more clinical areas of academia prevents countless international students from achieving their dreams:

“As an international student, most courses cost twice or thrice the fees than UK students. Plus, some of the courses which involve clinical training are completely inaccessible i.e. don’t even have self-funded places.

I was privileged enough to pay around £23k for a Master’s. But now it’s almost impossible to do another degree even though I BADLY want to do it.

I applied for a clinical training in the NHS, which involved studying part-time at University of Southampton and was invited for the interview but of course I couldn’t pursue it further. The visa restrictions are so strict that it’s almost impossible to make it here as an international student.”

But it isn’t just postgraduate university courses. Several industries, such as journalism, require independent postgraduate qualifications such as the NCTJ. Whilst such programmes were previously financed under the Government’s Career Development Loan scheme, since this was cut, aspiring journalists have found it a lot more difficult to fund this qualification and get their career off the ground, as freelance writer Emily notes:

“I have been looking at ways to finance myself through the NCTJ but have been unable to find a way to do it. The Guardian offer a bursary but is very competitive. Because several papers stipulate that you have to have the NCTJ, it stops people from going into journalism.”

Ultimately, with minimal financial support available for prospective postgraduate students, it is clear that unless postgraduate finance system sees a dramatic overhaul, there will be thousands of students from working-class backgrounds who are left behind.

Words by Charlotte Colombo

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