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Universities urge government to remove financial barriers to postgraduate study for disadvantaged students

Posted on 26 October 2015

The University of York was today part of the official launch in Westminster of a report calling on the Government to ensure proposed changes to postgraduate loans do not deter talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds accessing higher education and the top professions.

The University is part of a consortium of six Russell Group institutions in the largest pilot postgraduate support scheme funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). It made a number of recommendations to policymakers to make sure finance is no barrier to postgraduate study for students from under-represented groups.

In last year’s Autumn Statement, the Chancellor George Osborne announced new postgraduate loans worth up to £10,000 from 2016-17 – but they will only be available to people aged 30 and under.

The Postgraduate Support Scheme (PSS), involving the Universities of York, Sheffield, Leeds, Warwick, Manchester and Newcastle, tested whether a lack of access to funding was a barrier to Postgraduate Taught Study (PGT) . The universities awarded 416 scholarships of typically £10,000 based on widening participation (WP) criteria.

They found that one in five applicants was over 30 and people over that age were more likely to have WP characteristics such as a disability, a background in the care system or caring responsibilities which had prevented them from progressing to postgraduate study sooner.

A report, Widening Access to Postgraduate Study and Fair Access to the Professions, was presented at the House of Commons event.

Following the pilot scheme, the consortium is making the following recommendations to the Government:

  • If the age limit of 30 remains a qualifying criteria for proposed postgraduate loans, it should be waived for those postgraduate students who meet WP criteria where their circumstances have prevented earlier progression.
  • If access to state-backed income contingent loans is extended to postgraduates as proposed, they should be available to returners who meet WP criteria and not only be for graduates who paid the higher £9,000 per year fees.
  • Targeted scholarships should be made available alongside or instead of loans for postgraduate applicants who meet WP criteria, have existing undergraduate debt and no access to personal or family funding to support their continuing study.
  • The postgraduate support offer made to applicants who meet WP criteria should be clear, simple and accessible to encourage progression.

Under PSS, York awarded more than 120 scholarships of £10,000 to Masters students who met both the highest academic standards and the widening participation criteria. There was an average of six applications per scholarship to 106 programmes across all Faculties.

The Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost, Professor Saul Tendler, who represented the University of York at the House of Commons event, said: "We believe that education is the key to social mobility and it is essential we provide the brightest and the best with the skills and qualifications to distinguish themselves in a crowded job market. It is evident from the PSS that there is tremendous appetite for Postgraduate education and we need to make sure the country benefits fully from a reservoir of talent that spans the social spectrum.”

Professor Tom Stoneham, the Dean of the York Graduate Research School, added: “Masters level degrees provide students with both in-depth knowledge of a specialist area and a range of transferable research skills which prepare them or specialist roles and employment where they need to adapt and learn in response to changing and uncertain environments.

“Students from minority ethnic groups and disadvantaged socio-economic groups were the most likely to intend to enrol on a taught Masters but least likely to realise that intention. Financial considerations, and especially increasing levels of debt, played a significant role in these decisions."

PSS scholarships awarded to postgraduate students through the pilot scheme last year enabled many to study a Masters when they would have otherwise been unable to do so.

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