Between 2004/05 and 2012/13, the number of Scottish domiciled postgraduate students dropped by just over 20 per cent, with the biggest drop being in part-time students.
In one of his last acts as Education Secretary before the cabinet reshuffle, Michael Russell announced he had set up a working group to look at potential barriers to postgraduate study.
Speaking to Holyrood’s Universities 2014 conference, he said: “Scotland needs graduates and postgraduates with professional skills, and there is a risk to many parts of Scottish life if we don’t ensure the number is not just sustained, but increased.”
The working group, chaired by Professor Bryan McGregor of the University of Aberdeen, will begin its work in the new year. A Scottish Government spokeswoman told Holyrood: “The principal focus of the group’s work will be gaining a deeper understanding of why participation by Scottish domiciled students in taught postgraduate courses has reduced. From that, the group will frame recommendations for positive change that will drive up participation.”
The government’s ongoing commitment to free education has ensured undergraduates don’t pay for their degrees, but the same cannot be said for postgraduate courses. In the current parliamentary election, maintenance grants were stopped for postgraduates and tuition fees grants became loans. Since session 2012/13, students who qualify for support and are studying for an eligible course must apply for the payment of a tuition-fee loan of up to £3400 for a full-time course and £1700 for each year of a two-year part-time course. However, institutions themselves set fees, and many are more expensive.
What qualifies a course for eligibility is unclear, and courses outside the list receive no state fee support at all. Russell said: “Among the group’s investigations is the current prescribed course list, whether it’s a barrier to participation and what a replacement might look like. The group will report by June next year and I hope we can take speedy action to grow the number of postgraduates in light of a considered response to where we are.”
Among those invited onto the working group is the National Union of Students Scotland president, Gordon Maloney, who says the prescribed courses list is a “nonsense”, which no one understands. “We hear anecdotally that courses on that list don’t exist anymore, some of them,” he says.
The NUS remain optimistic the list will be scrapped, but Maloney says there are other important issues needing to be addressed. “Right now, institutions can charge whatever they want for postgraduate study, and if you’re at a university that’s calculated students are able to pay £5,000 for this course, and suddenly that student is getting £5,000 in loans for it, there’s a real danger it acts as an incentive for the institution to increase fees.”
As well as a cap on fees, Maloney says he will push for mandatory access requirements to be brought into postgraduate study. “I think there’s a very real danger that we start to make big steps on widening access in undergraduate study and actually do nothing to level the playing field, and just move to a different playing field, where postgraduate study hasn’t been touched at all,” he says.
"Lawyers, the people literally making the decisions about the laws in this country, have had to go through this valve of wealth”
Postgraduate funding is another chance for Scotland to demonstrate a different political attitude to south of the border, argues Maloney, one which is “more about people’s lives and what society needs rather than business and what business needs.”
With postgraduate courses increasingly being specifically career-focused, Maloney believes prohibitive fees create a ‘wealth valve’ which prohibits sections of society from becoming upwardly mobile. “It means lawyers, the people literally making the decisions about the laws in this country, have had to go through this valve of wealth in order to do that. It seems to me that is not an abstract impact on society.”
Michael Russell was a potential ally of Maloney’s, in terms of sharing his view. “The ability to learn, rather than the ability to pay should be at the heart of our education offer. Education is a societal, not an individual boon,” Russell told Universities 2014, adding: “The issue of fees goes wider than just the ability to learn or the barriers to learning. The existence of fees, in my contention, over a period of time perverts the purpose of higher education, because it places a monetary value on everything that is done in higher education, and it means the subjects studied are ranked by monetary value, rather than anything else.”
Maloney says a holistic approach to student support is necessary to look at the bigger picture of poverty, when people are “literally starving or choosing between heating their home, feeding themselves or their kids.” For working-class people to access postgraduate study, says Maloney, “the answer lies not only in the way we treat postgraduate study, it’s actually the way we treat and fund post-compulsory education across the board. I think one of the key solutions to that is putting more money into student support.”