Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Postgraduates: the understated powerhouse of UK higher education?

  • 14 May 2020
  • By Diana Beech

This guest blog responding to HEPI’s new report on postgraduates has been written in a personal capacity by Dr Diana Beech (Head of Government Affairs at the University of Warwick). Diana was Policy Adviser for higher education to various Ministers for Universities and Science (Sam Gyimah, Jo Johnson and Chris Skidmore – twice!), a role she fulfilled after a stint as HEPI’s first Director of Policy and Advocacy.

On 13 February 2020, as soon as it became clear we would be getting a new Universities Minister, I quickly penned a day-one briefing note listing the top ten things I wanted our new Minister to know about higher education. And it was not by coincidence that the first two points I made emphasised that not all students are young people and that postgraduates are students too.

Now, I admit it is not good practice to base policy purely on personal experience but, having spent more of my own student days as a postgraduate (first studying for a Master’s degree and then for a PhD), it has always been more than a little grating when some public commentators and journalists automatically assume that university students must be aged somewhere between 18 and 21 and are studying full-time for a three-year undergraduate degree.

Not only do attitudes like this do a disservice to the hundreds of thousands of mature and part-time learners in our universities and colleges who are studying for highly-valuable qualifications at Levels 4 and 5, but it also completely ignores the substantial number of postgraduates who have chosen to extend their higher education through taught or research Master’s degrees, doctoral programmes or other postgraduate qualifications such as PGCEs.

The landmark report released by HEPI today focussing on postgraduate provision confirms what I have always suspected: namely that the postgraduate population in UK universities is an understated powerhouse. As today’s report shows, the number of postgraduate starters in the UK has already grown by 16 per cent since 2008/09 and there are 566,555 postgraduates in total. This number will need to grow even further if the Government remain serious about meeting its 2.4 per cent target for investment in research and development by 2027. After all, you can pump as much money as you like into the UK’s research base, but it won’t make much of a difference if we don’t have the talented people in place to power it. 

But, even without the 2.4 per cent ambition firmly in our sights, the recent growth in postgraduate numbers is still very welcome news, particularly when it comes to fair access and participation, not to mention investment in education and skills. All the signs are indeed there to show we are serious about evolving into a knowledge-based economy and are committed to building the highly-skilled workforce demanded by the twenty-first century labour market.

And we’ve adapted fast. When I embarked on higher education in the noughties, the postgraduate world was still one for the fortunate few. For domestic students in particular, it was still very much the case that if you had the money, you could continue with your studies. But if you didn’t, then the prospect of achieving a Master’s degree or PhD would have to remain a distant dream.

Personally, I managed to self-fund my Master’s year through various holiday jobs and savings. Yet, I still consider myself one of the lucky ones because I went on to secure a scholarship to cover my fees and maintenance for a PhD. And without the promise of funding, I would have had no choice but to walk away from my doctoral ambitions altogether.

Yet, I know several people who bravely chose to fund their way through their PhDs – be it through paid employment, private loans or very generous parental support – all driven by the belief it would pay dividends in the future. This was particularly true for peers in Arts and Humanities disciplines, where PhD funding is like gold dust given the limited number of alternative funding sources outside prestigious Research Council grants.

Thankfully, the situation has improved dramatically over the past decade for those aspiring to move on to postgraduate study. Not only have we seen a fresh wave of government support for PhD research and postgraduate conversion courses in new fields such as Artificial Intelligence, but the introduction of taxpayer-supported Master’s loans across the UK in 2016 has brought down barriers to postgraduate study for those without access to sufficient financial capital. And the effects of this policy are clear for all to see, with the number of UK-domiciled Master’s students having grown by 29 per cent in the first year alone – and by 59 per cent among those from disadvantaged areas. (See the chart below taken from the new report.)

Moreover, if this trend is anything to go by, we may expect the introduction of taxpayer-supported doctoral loans in England and Wales in 2018 also to increase the uptake of PhDs among domestic students in these parts of the UK. However, the growth may well be slower, particularly among those from disadvantaged areas, as the prospect of taking out a doctoral loan for at least three years – perhaps on top of an existing undergraduate and Master’s loan – is not for the fainthearted.

Nevertheless, at a time like the present when tens of thousands of fresh Bachelor’s and Master’s graduates are faced with taking their chances on a broken labour market this summer, taking out a further income-contingent loan may well seem like less risky business. This is especially so, since postgraduate loan-holders do not need to worry about making repayments until they are earning over a set amount and, just like ‘Plan 2’ undergraduate loans, postgraduate loan balances will be written off after 30 years for students from England and Wales – or after 25 years for students from Scotland and Northern Ireland.

With a new global recession looming, it is certainly reassuring that today’s graduates have more opportunities to shield themselves from economic hardship through postgraduate education than their forebears did in the class of 2008. But given the latter still found the means to embark on postgraduate study at a time when funding options were limited, we can be left in no doubt that demand for postgraduate provision in the UK is only going to grow over the months and years ahead, providing of course that Government can help universities stabilise research funding at this crucial and unique moment in time.

Whether this expected rise in domestic demand will be enough to compensate for losses from the rest of the world is yet to be revealed. But if universities across the UK concentrate now on offering postgraduate provision in ways that will appeal to domestic students this autumn (i.e. by keeping fees competitive and leaving room for living costs in loan allowances), then a reinforced postgraduate population could well be the powerhouse we all look to – to secure jobs, increase prospects, and ultimately reinvigorate the nation’s post-pandemic economy.

Other recent HEPI blogs on how Covid-19 can affect postgraduate education can be found here and here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *