In his Autumn statement, the Chancellor George Osborne announced that a student loan system for postgraduate masters degrees will be available from 2016-17 onwards. Whilst this is evidently a step in the right direction, others have reservations - for if theres no such thing as a free lunch, surely theres no such thing as a free dinner either?
The National Union of Students vice president, Megan Dunn, predicts that the system will make a fundamental difference to the lives and opportunities of almost 40000 students, and bring in an extra 10000 students into postgraduate study. Yet one has to remember that lives and opportunities are not the same thing, and that a fundamental difference can be negative as well as positive. For example, whilst it may increase the opportunities of bright students from the poorest backgrounds, who are currently deterred by the potential costs, it also impacts their lives by giving them more debt as well as a doctorate.
Obviously this is still better than some of the alternatives, such as funding study through credit cards, overdrafts and personal loans. Yet we must be careful to read the small print - for example, we have no idea how tough the repayment terms will be, except that they will run concurrently with undergraduate loans but be charged at a higher rate. There is also an age limit (you must be under 30 to be eligible) and so mature students are excluded from this arrangement; and many of the most prestigious postgraduate courses, such as MBAs, cost double the loan anyway.
For a 3 year undergraduate course and a one year Masters, one can expect to have around £27,000 worth of tuition fee loans, and spend up to £25,000 in maintenance costs. Now that might not be so daunting for a graduate who is starting at an investment bank for £50,000 a year, but what about the aspiring academic or the trainee teacher? Whilst differentiating between subjects is a controversial issue and another debate altogether, it must still be addressed because that amount of debt might mean virtually nothing to someone doing a Masters in Law, but might mean virtually everything to someone doing a Masters in Ancient Greek.
The introduction of post-graduate loans may be part of the drive for a higher-skilled workforce, but that somewhat suggests it is also driven towards STEM students (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). This is particularly interesting given Osbournes funding announcements for science research centres - £235 million for the Sir Henry Royce Institute for Advanced Material Science in Chester">ManChester; £20 million for an innovation centre on ageing in Newcastle and £113 million for big data at Hartree.
In conclusion, the debate boils down to the fact that yes this is a radical step forward for the Conservative government, but is it radical enough? UCU leader Sally Hunt summarized by saying that whilst its positive that the government is addressing the current crisis in postgraduate funding, encouraging people to accrue more debt is not the best way to attract the best and brightest into further study. She suggests that if we really want to expand numbers, the government must consider even more comprehensive measures, such as restoring proper grants, or writing off part of a students undergraduate debt when they complete a postgraduate course.
Given that the number of postgraduate students has dropped by over 12% in the last three years, perhaps such desperate times call for even more desperate measures.