Monday, January 17, 2011

Will only the wealthy be able to afford the MA in future?

This is the topic of an interesting article in the Times Higher Education found here. The concern centres on the possible trebling of university fees for English undergraduates. If their debts substantially rise as many fear, then how many will continue to pursue graduate study -- which might increase their debts? The fear is simply that far fewer students will pursue graduate study in the near future. Only those from more wealthy backgrounds might then take up study after graduation.

My own view is that everything is uncertain and we need to know more details from the government and from universities, notably what precisely the universities will charge (and be able to keep rather than pay to the government in the form of a levy). Several proposals have been aired with some looking likely and others seemingly ruled out, but it would be very helpful to know more about the specifics of what will be rolled out before making further comment.

That said, I suspect that graduate study in the UK will remain strong and especially if international student recruitment remains steady. In the United States, we find higher fees all often paid up front at both undergraduate and graduate level with graduate study remaining strong. The culture is very different in the UK and it will be interesting to see what happens, in fact.

While I do not at all support the higher education proposals and believe all university fees should be abolished, I also believe that graduate study will continue to be in good health post-2012. Whether my prediction is correct, only time can tell . . . . . 


Peter said...


Isn't it basically already the case that only the wealthy can do an MA though? It is my impression that very, very few people get funding for a taught MA, so the only remaining options are the bank of mum and dad or getting into loads of private debt due to the lack of an SLC for grads.

Thom Brooks said...

Yes, funding for a taught MA can be difficult, but people do get it: for example, I did.

In any event, taking on extra debt or getting some help from parents doesn't mean only the very wealthy can pursue graduate degrees although it may remain very difficult for others.

Ian Silvera said...

Unfortunately, I’m in this position. I’m currently in my third year at the University of Nottingham studying philosophy.

I'm looking into studying a politics or social research methods MA. In the process I'll have to dip into all my savings to pay for the £5k price tag.

Already the issue of instant-gratification means many working class students don't go to decent universities and pressures at home on undergrad students like myself, mean it’s unlikely many will carry on for graduate studies.

I don't think grad departments will suffer too much, but subjects in the humanities will and students from modest backgrounds will be a rarity.

If the trend follows that the BA will turn into the new A-level, and the MA the new BA, then this would be a real injustice for a majority of aspiring students.

Thom Brooks said...

Many thanks for these comments, Ian. I suppose what is likely to happen in the UK is an attempt to change the culture on higher education.

In the United States, students from various backgrounds may not have £5,000 in their bank accounts to afford graduate degrees. However, money can be available from the Department of Education in the form of low interest loans and many students (from many backgrounds) apply for these loans as they allow them to pursue study at the universities of their choice. Yes, there is some debt to pay back at the end, but there is also the opportunity to pursue further studies if you want to. This is a path taken by many students in the US. Of course, Americans have a longer history of university fees and graduate debt.

In the UK, the picture is very different and it appears that the government is trying to change it. To be very clear, I disagree with these plans. However, I don't think that graduate students will become much fewer -- esp if some form of funding was maintained not unlike what we find in the US. Again, this is not ideal and my own view is that higher education should be free for all who qualify. Whether this is right will be known in a few years...

Peter said...


That some people receive funding doesn't tell against the view that in general, only the wealthy can do postgraduate study. A few token scholarships are handed out at Eton, but it's still obviously true that only the wealthy can go to Eton (I don't mean to imply that the situation is similarly bad as Eton for Masters study). I haven't seen any data on what % of taught MA students get full funding, but I suspect it's a very small %.

"Taking on extra debt, or getting some help from parents" I think understates the issue. For a start, I think that taking on extra debt from the private banking system is pretty much a non-starter for a lot of people. Suppose you want to do the BPhil at Oxford, but don't get research council funding. You're talking £7k tuition, plus college fees, plus living costs. I would tentatively claim that no bank with an eye on maximising profit would lend someone the best part of £20,000 to pursue a not especially lucrative qualification (so it's different to say, the Law Practise Course). So private sector debt, for a lot of people (certainly people from median income or lower households) isn't an option.

The same applies to getting help from parents. If your parents have £20k just lying around, that makes you pretty rich in my book. I know my parents didn't have it. Anecdotally, everyone I know who pursued postgraduate study and self-funded, I consider pretty wealthy.

The issue would be solved by extending the Student Loans system to cover postgraduate study.

Ian Silvera said...

I know a little, via Leiter's blog about the U.S system. For instance, state subzibized universities- Like Rutgers- and the low Tax brackets in the U.S.; two important points you fail to mention.

However,I'm glad we both agree on the 'free' education part.