Thursday, July 25, 2013

Disadvantaged Postgraduates: Who Are They and How Can We Help Them?

student funding
Is redirecting funding away from disadvantaged undergraduates towards disadvantaged postgrads a good thing? (Photograph: Martin Argles)
Policymakers need to identify which postgrads most need support, says Tom Frostick, who asks whether redirecting funding towards these students is a good way of going about it.

The government has confirmed that funding allocated through the national scholarship programme (NSP) is to be "refocused" on disadvantaged postgraduates at the expense of disadvantaged undergraduates.

The NSP was introduced in 2011 to offset the impact of the undergraduate fees increase on poorer student participation.

But the government seems to have concluded that the new £9,000 fees regime is not having a detrimental effect on participation (UCAS figures show that applications from poorer individuals have actually increased) and that NSP funding would be better targeted at postgraduates, who do not have access to an undergraduate style loans system and whose existing government funding streams have been severely reduced.

The refocusing of the NSP is controversial, not least because the impact of higher undergraduate fees is not yet fully known. It also raises the more general question of who the funding should go to. Or rather, who counts as being a "disadvantaged postgraduate"?

CentreForum explored the notion of redirecting existing support away from undergraduate students towards postgraduates in its latest policy paper.

We argued that a preferable way of funding postgraduate study is to introduce an income contingent loans system, financed through increased borrowing and recouped in the long term through higher earnings and growth.

But in reality, at a time of borrowing constraints, the government is much likelier to shift expenditure around and avoid spending more, as the NSP decision illustrates.

The least worst option, if this is to happen, would be to phase out maintenance loan support for undergraduates with high parental income and then reinvest the money in disadvantaged postgraduates.

This has the potential to be distributionally fairer than the NSP decision, but it is by no means ideal. At what level, for instance, can we determine that undergraduates' parental income goes from being normal to high?

And how certain is it that those from high income households would receive parental backing in lieu of maintenance loan support?

Then there is the question of where this released funding should go. Determining eligibility criteria is difficult because, as Hefce's report shows, the postgraduate population is extremely complex.

As a starting point, scholarships in the form of fee waivers, bursaries or both might be offered to postgraduates who, as undergraduates, were entitled to a maintenance grant because their parents' income was less than £25,000 a year.

However, postgraduate students are typically over 25 and likely to have different financial circumstances to those they found themselves in at 18.

We mooted in our paper that a maintenance grant measure could be time limited, expiring two years after a person graduates, and other eligibility criteria could be introduced thereafter.

But this represents only a fraction of the thinking required around eligibility, and also provides no answer for whether fee waivers and bursaries are the best forms of support for postgraduates deemed to be disadvantaged.

It might be better to invest in outreach work, for example, as intervention before someone decides to return to university could be more effective than handing them a form to fill in once they have already applied.

While the move towards increasing the availability of funding for postgraduate study is to be welcomed, policymakers need to ask themselves whether redirecting funding away from disadvantaged undergraduates towards disadvantaged postgraduates is a good way of going about it, identify more generally which prospective postgraduates are most in need of support, and explore what type of support is most effective at widening postgraduate participation.

There are no easy answers.

Tom Frostick is a policy analyst at the liberal think tank CentreForum - follow it on Twitter @CentreForum

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