Osborne’s Postgraduate Loan: too little too late?

On the 3rd December, George Osborne released a statement to Parliament, including plans to introduce a new government loan for prospective postgraduates, to be introduced in 2016. According to this statement, Osborne’s aim is to ‘increase the number of highly-skilled workers’ in the UK by ‘removing the financial barriers to postgraduate study’, resulting in greater opportunities for a wider variety of students. The loan could be up to £10,000, providing a new opportunity for up to 10,000 more students wishing to pursue further study. But with the recent rise of tuition fees and living expenses, is this enough?

For many, the scheme is long overdue in a society where postgraduate education has long been a privilege for those able to pay for it outright – despite the fact that many specialised jobs in sectors such as medicine and scientific research require a Masters as one of their most basic prerequisites. The result being, of course, that these higher paid roles remained unattainable for the majority of people with lower personal or family incomes. So how have people been managing up until now?

Uproar was caused last year when young Oxford undergraduate Emily-Rose Eastop tried to beat the cycle by ‘crowd funding’ a Master’s degree in cognitive and evolutionary anthropology. Despite attending a comprehensive secondary school, Eastop attracted insults such as ‘posh brat’ for wanting to pursue academia, rather than ‘getting a job like the rest of us’. Ironically, her overall aim was, of course, to increase the chances of reaching her dream career, as many aspire to. However, due to lack of funding and opportunity, high-paid ‘dream’ jobs often have to make way for their mediocre counterparts which pay the bills.

The new loan seems to be an exciting solution to these issues. Studying at Cardiff University, a one-year English Literature MA would cost £5,850, which the proposed loan would amply cover. This figure does not, however, include the cost of living. Like many universities, however, Cardiff offers a range of funding opportunities to help support its students, though these are predominantly to cover the cost of the course rather than living, and are often limited to those subjects in which the study can be seen as widely beneficial – a PhD in cancer studies, for example.

In the interest of wider access for students from varied backgrounds, how does entry into the country’s best universities, Oxford and Cambridge, fit into the discussion? Forever seen as an unattainable aspiration for many students across the UK, access to these two universities is shrouded in a mist of intimidating rumours – including the idea that they are only available to Brideshead Revisted-style dandies with the means to ‘buy their way in’. Untrue, of course, but there can be no doubt that the full Oxford student experience does come with hidden costs.

The equivalent of a full-time English Master’s at Oxford will set you back £6,335 – a figure comparable to Cardiff’s. However, upon acceptance you will also have to pay a mandatory ‘college fee’, something in the realms of £2,800, making the total £9,135. Like Cardiff, however, this does not include accommodation, bills, food, books, or any other necessity concurrent with living and studying. And in the absence of a maintenance loan, like that provided for undergraduates, we are left once again in the same position as before; students are either going to have to work alongside their full-time degree, or rely on some pre-existing cash.

In the absence of a maintenance loan or extra bursary system, it seems that many will still have to pay for the privilege of higher education. Therefore, the loan will only benefit those who have the means to cover extra costs themselves – already the case with Undergraduate degrees, and a further barrier to truly wide access. And continued study above a Master’s? Even with the full £10,000, the loan is nowhere near enough to cover both a PhD and the Master’s required to gain access to it. Therefore, a loan which creates access for 10,000 students able to supplement living costs from their own pocket, whilst still not giving opportunities to those with nothing, is perhaps too little, too late.