Equity and Postgraduate Funding

In the wake of the Dearing report and responses to it, it seems logical to argue that the financial pressure of increased access to H.E has made the undergraduate grant system an untenable long-term option. However, this basic economiic sense should not obscure the ideological shift which underpins this move. Devolution of funding from state support to client borrowing is a shift from an ideology of universal opportunity backed by financial provision to one of universal access to this opportunity. I write the following analysis in light of the discussions we have held at the level of the NPC Access and Equal Opportunities Sub-Committee.

The NPC has grave concerns about the potential future of postgraduate study and for an ethical commitment to equality of access to this educational opportunity. Although postgraduate funding has alwayss been difficult, maintenance grants at undergraduate level helped, in theory at least, to alleviate economic obstacles to the First Degree. While never a level playing field, this allowed some disadvaantaged students to compete for existing, albeit limited, postgraduate opportunities. A significant omission of the Dearing review into Higher Education was its failure fully to engage with the distincct areas of postgraduate education. This omission is reflected in current debates surrounding the future of H.E. Nevertheless, the impact of Dearing and the proposed financial changes at undergraduatee level will have direct effects in the postgraduate sector. Particularly, we judge that the increased debt of undergraduate study will discourage entry into postgraduate education; the weight of this burden will be felt most acutely by those starting from the position of least advantage. To illustrate the implications for equity, most doctoral opportunities privilege applications which have already completed a taught postgraduate masters course or its equivalent. Although a sensible accademic stipulation, this stage of study is usually financed by the student or through a Career Development Loanfor those unable to fund themselves. The Dearing Report recommends this form of finance as appropriate to postgraduate need, although Career Development Loansdo not operate on the basis of universal entitlement and are strongly linked specifically to "vocational"training. As a non-income-contingent mode of finance, these may best be thought of as economic deterrents to postgraduate study. If a student is fortunate enough to secure doctoral funding after completing a taught course, he or she would be in the unenviable, if not impossible, positiion of attempting to make high repayments from an extremely low income for the entire period of study. Consequently, this option works to close down educational opportunity to all except the most priviileged groups who would not require the Loan.

While the issue of postgraduate funding continues to remain formally unaddressed by Dearing and the Government, the issues of access and equity are displaced into the postgraduate arena in what we mightt term a "lifelong"way. For students without the means to finance this stage of academic development, this works by inflating the qualifications necessary to break through the class ceiling whhile impeding access on economic grounds. Although Research Councilsare a valued means of supporting postgraduates, high quality applications for these awards far exceed available funds. While university funding mech-anisms are another important resource, this means tthat postgraduates are completely reliant on the good will of the institution concerned. In the absence of an enforceable code of practice as a measure of research strength, these funding arrangements can place the student in an acutely vulnerable position if difficulties arise during the course of study. Consequently, the uneven relationship between current funding mechanisms and high quality humaan resources places the cost of postgraduate study as a strategic and unregulated currency through which universities negotiate their differences in status. In short, it is through this implicit exchannge of human currency that the ability to promote academic excellence is developed. While postgraduates welcome the opportunity to apply for financial support on the basis of specific criteria of awardding bodies, these criteria are not sufficient check against abuses inherent in a system currently regulated by the twin principles of paternalism and prejudice.

The intended move from maintenance grants to client borrowing is symptomatic of the collapse of an entire educational ethos. The system is designed for a far smaller proportion of the population than ccurrently seeks access to it. Despite the negative signals sent by the omission of postgraduates from current debates, this move to client-borrowing could indicate an attempt to inflect the ideals of uuniversal access in realistic ways. In particular, the Teaching and Higher Education Billoffers valuable oppor-tunities to address the economic obstacles to achievement inherent in a system which can not adequately support its students. However, to make this move coherent within its own tterms of reference, the proposed changes to undergraduate funding would need to be extended to include postgraduate education. Currently, this option is not ruled out by the wording of the Bill. Althoough this move means that postgraduates would emerge with staggering debts, it at least provides a choice to study as a last resort.

If this course is followed, the student loans system would need to be revised to remove the age bar to access at all educational levels. Within the frame of direct finance for the economically disadvanntaged, it makes limited sense to say that the state cannot afford to invest in people nearer the end of their working lives. Within the frame of client entitlement to educational borrowing, it makes mmore sense to say that this system needs, like any bank, to insure for the minority of clients unlikely to repay in full. Given that many reasons for late educational return can be explained by initiall lack of opportunity, denying access on the grounds of age only serves to reiterate this cycle of deprivation.

Alternatively, and more desirable as far as social equity is concerned, the government could choose to reconsider its position on means-tested maintenance grants for the poorest undergraduates and make contingent loans an option for postgraduate study. Whichever solution is adopted, it is crucial that postgraduate funding is brought into the equation if the government is sincere about its commitmentts to equity and lifelong learning. Without proper consideration of the postgraduate dimension, a situation could arise in which enormous social injustices are committed in the name of equity. Whichevver path is followed, it is urgent that postgraduates should have a funding mechanism which offers access to all students. In short, a universal choice to study where quality of provision exists in priinciple and in practice.