The Teaching and Higher Education Bill

The National Postgraduate Committeehas analysed the Commons debate on 16 March on the second reading of the Teaching and Higher Education Bill, from which it passed to Committee stage on 31 March. The main parties seek to amend the Bill as regards funding for undergraduate study such that, respectively, grants are ultimately abolished, or thhere is personal liability for tuition fees, or both. I suggest that you read the below on the context of the separateGreen Paper on Lifelong Learningstatement, "we will make provision for the highest level of postgraduate education" (The Learning Age, chap 2 sec.1, para.2.3; the next NPC meeting, over the weekend of 15-17 May at Bath University, will discuss the Paper).

Our overall conclusion is that issues specific to the area of postgraduate education are, so far, overlooked. The debate concentrates upon the issue of funding for studies and it is this area which is most pertinent to equal opportunity of access to postgraduate education.

Greater debt liability upon individuals, such as through responsibility for their own maintenance costs and the charging of tuition fees, in undergraduate education is one issue. We understand the stannce of the Secretary of State and his supporters that access can be opened up in the sense of increasing student numbers most cheaply, if there is less state support for each student. The Government's preferred solution may or may not turn out to be a disincentive for capable people to enter Higher Education, from low-income and other backgrounds. Our expectations are that individuals from lower inncome backgrounds will be deterred more than those from well-off backgrounds but it may be that only time will reveal the outcomes.

Whilst the undergraduate student perspective has received much attention, the question of access, particularly for those from less well-off backgrounds, remains for postgraduate study. Occasional mentiions of postgraduates in the debate apparently by supporters of the Secretary of State [e.g.; Gordon Marsden, col.1009; David Chaytor, col.1029] (rightly) mention that it has always been the case that mmost postgraduates have contributed financially to their own studying, with the (unwarranted) implication that undergraduates should be encouraged to do more so. But this misses a vital point. This iss that the prospect of additional debt carried through undergraduate study and accumulated further over more years of postgraduate study is likely to be an additional disincentive for many people intereested in and most suited to the postgraduate level of education. The real postgraduate issue is raised once, early on in fact, in the debate, by Hilton Dawson [col.965]:

"...Does [the Secretary of State] also accept that... students wishing to undertake postgraduate studies, with the aim of attaining higher qualifications and pursuing academic careers, are worried about the level of debt with which they may be faced?"
"Mr Blunkett: I do not pretend to be able to resolve the problems of those who are committing themselves to postgraduate study. They make a calculation about additional income and additional oppoortunities..... there are greater opportunities for those with postgraduate qualifications. A number of ladders are available to those who go into higher education, and graduate and postgraduate studennts have the opportunity to enhance their chance of getting a quality job that they can enjoy doing."

In other words, the Secretary of State is initially, albeit following the lead of the Dearing Review, effectively absolving himself of responsibility for funding problems that beset postgraduate study; he then continues by lumping postgraduates in with an undifferentiated category of H.E. students in general, which still misses the vital point, which is the particular impinging upon postgraduate study of his proposals for undergraduate study.

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, the best case scenario for the Secretary of State: access is opened to more individuals from low-income backgrounds; all undergraduate students incur larger debtts than at present; and on graduation as many as possible obtain decently paid jobs suitable for graduates, so that they can pay off their student loan debts as quickly as the system permits. On this sscenario, however, there will still be postgraduate students.

Some professions outside Higher Education require vocational postgraduate courses tailored for entry into employment. For those professions where both employment prospects and expected salary levels aare good the Secretary of State may or may not turn out to be right that most individuals would be prepared to withstand another year or so of accumulation rather than diminishing of personal debt. Feaars about these types of student and those in analogous situations are expressed in the debate, nonetheless. There are courses where a three-year degree scheme is expected to be supplemented by fourth or more years, such as an M.Chem., medical, dental, veterinary, architecture, B.Ed. and PGCE studies, and the fourth year of the Scottish institutions' degree, each of these examples attracting more orr less support than the next under the current proposals [e.g.; Brian Iddon, col.1018; Andrew Welsh, col.1021; Andrew Lansley, col.1027; Don Foster, col.1031-2].

These examples offer just a glimpse of the problems other individuals face in funding their postgraduate studies, however, problems which tend to be like the above examples but compounded many-fold sincce such postgraduates have to study for even longer than the above. Many are expected to and choose to embark upon postgraduate research study. The basic State Studentship scheme, the main scheme for support of Home postgraduates in full-time study, provides for maintenance income hardly more than half of the 10,000 stipulated as the annual income threshold above which the student loans are expected to be paid back. In most disciplines a successful and speedy period of postgraduate full-time study would be four years, obtaining a Masters and a Doctorate Degree. It is normal, if not desiirable, to take longer than this period even as continuously registered full-time.

Those supported by the State Studentship scheme are, compared to a large cross-section of the postgraduate body, a fortunate minority. Only around a quarter of full-time research students are funded byy the scheme and only around a half of postgraduates are full-time. Just under a half of postgraduates fund their own studies, particularly part-timers. Part-time study towards a Doctorate takes signiificantly longer than the full-time route.

There are many reasons why individuals go into postgraduate study. Some do so purely as a stepping stone into a well-paid career. It is true to say, however, that postgraduate research contributes to the body of knowledge available to the whole of society and some wish to partake in this. The long period of postgraduate research study is also the career step into Higher Education. Those who teacch and research in Higher Education are responsible for the degree courses of all graduates. The standards of teaching and the knowledge produced in Higher Education therefore shapes the country's longg-term educational standards at all levels. However, employment prospects are generally not good and job security is low for those entering the academic profession, and this is aside from its being onee of the worse paid professions.

Take the position of talented individuals from the lower-income backgrounds who graduate with a large debt due to the Government's current proposals. They might assume that they can manage to carry theiir debt through four or more years of postgraduate study, and accumulate much more debt if they have to support themselves while studying by a loan (loans for non-PGCE postgraduates are available only aat commercial interest rates). Such a course of action would prejudice against their opportunities of developing their spending power until a later stage in their lives. They might well choose insteadd to aim for one of the better paid professions or areas of employment, and immediately upon graduation too.

There is always likely to be demand for postgraduate course places, and to be desire to enter the academic profession. The question remains whether those places and jobs will be filled by a representattive cross-section of society or whether only dedicated individuals with additional personal or family wealth will be in a position realistically to aim for such places and jobs. We judge that the Goveernment's current proposals for funding undergraduate study will further limit access to postgraduate study, particularly to those from lower-income backgrounds.