The Market Failure of Postgraduate Education

The results of the Market Failure of Postgraduate Education have recently been highlighted in an article in the Times Higher Educational Supplement and also The Times.

Debt deters postgraduates

STUDYING for a PhD can be costly and increasingly it is only the very well-heeled who are pursuing postgraduate study.

"Debt is a major concern for students, especially those from lower socio-economic backgrounds," says Simon Felton, the general secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee (NPC), in The Times Higher Education Supplement (Aug 4).

Research by the NPC and Prospects, the graduate jobs website, found that 77 per cent of potential postgraduates from working-class backgrounds said that financial concerns strongly influenced their decision over whether to enter postgraduate study but only 33 per cent of those from upper middle-class backgrounds felt the same.

"We wont necessarily see the implications of this for ten or fifteen years, when the current crop of academics retires," Felton says. A paper by Paul Wakeling, of Manchester University, supports the NPC findings.

He found that those from the highest socio-economic classes were nearly three times more likely to progress to a research degree than graduates from the lowest social classes.

Wakeling adds that, although there is a risk that future academics would come primarily from the highest social groups, academics today do not reflect the diversity of wider society.

"Given the ageing and skewed demographics of our academic community, we need to look at ways to encourage more able students from all backgrounds to consider postgraduate study," says Janet Metcalfe, the director of the UK GRAD programme, which offers support to postgraduate students

The background to the results was the proposal for the research.

Research Proposal

The current Higher Education Act 2004 has legislated the incoming of undergraduate deferred variable tuition fees as well as the introduction of a limited maintenance grant for those from poorer income backgrounds. All fees and maintenance are covered by an income contingent student loan with a low interest rate, which will not apply to postgraduate courses. The main concerns of the National Postgraduate Committee (NPC) are the potential impact on continuation to postgraduate education that will arise from the increased levels of debt that will have consequences as to whether postgraduate education can be pursued.

The purpose of this research proposal is to gather evidence as to where postgraduate education is a marketfailure not only through funding availability but with regards to access arrangements to accommodate disability, gender, ethnic minorities and other non traditional groups. All aspects of participation should be considered in this regard.

Research Objectives

  • The view of undergraduate students when considering continuation to postgraduate education.
  • The view of part time postgraduates and their reasoning for choosing part time postgraduate study.
  • The opinion of international postgraduates choosing the UK in preference to competing countries,thus seeking the potential risks involved with institutions moving to international postgraduates as their primary income.
  • To seek views of current UK postgraduates as to why they have pursued postgraduate education and their views on the financial implications.
  • To seek the views of women, students with disabilities and non traditional groups


Prospective UK Postgraduate Students
1. To seek their current impressions of postgraduate study and whether they would consider it.
2. Motives for applying to undertake postgraduate study.
3. Concerns of undergraduates over financial implications.
4. To consider whether current undergraduates would pursue postgraduate study with increased levels of debt.

Current UK Postgraduate Students
1. To investigate their financial situation in terms of current debt, expected increased debt and means by which they finance their postgraduate study.
2. To seek their reasoning for undertaking postgraduate study.
3. To investigate whether increased debt at undergraduate level would have taken them away from postgraduate study.

Part Time Postgraduates
1. To investigate why part time postgraduates choose part time study as opposed to full time study and if it compliments their career.
2. To investigate how they finance their study and whether such financing has made part time study the only option.
3. To investigate whether they would consider full time study should there be the time and fundingrequired.

International Postgraduates
1. To seek international postgraduates views on why they choose the UK for their study.
2. To seek opinion in terms of competitiveness, long term benefits of UK postgraduate education. 3. To ascertain whether international postgraduate education will be sustained.

Other aspects of Access
1. To add an appendix to all questionnaires asking questions of whether they have felt limits in access due to their gender, disability, race, religion, sexuality or any other aspect of being from a non traditional group.

The report on the findings is available below: