Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Postgraduates: an endangered species?

In the midst of the furore over undergraduate tuition fees, one group of people has been forgotten: the postgraduate student, especially those not doing PGCEs and other vocational courses.

Most undergraduates will emerge with a degree and £50,000 in debt (£27k in tuition fees and £20k+ in living expenses, much of this in the form of bank overdrafts and other loans which aren't protected by the government's loans scheme.

Who then will do an MA, an MSc., a DipSW, a Ph.D? I graduated with debts, though very little compared with my own students - the maximum student loan was £850 and there were no tuition fees. I took a year off to work in bars and the 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. night shift at Centrica's data entry mill, then returned to take a Master's degree part-time: without some help from the university, I'd never have been able to do it. By the time I started my Ph.D, I was struggling, and the £6500 p.a. scholarship from The Hegemon barely serviced my debts: only huge amounts of teaching and school supply teaching got me through it, to the detriment of my studies.

So why on earth would any 21 year-old take on further debt and spend more time out of employment in the new regime, in pursuit of a qualification which will rarely increase their earning potential? The love of a subject won't keep you warm and fed. The chilling effect will be to reduce the number of postgraduate students, reduce the field largely to science (generous bursaries are usually available in those disciplines) and reduce the institutions offering postgraduate tuition to the magic circle of the Russell Group: Oxbridge and their wannabe circle: without a self-perpetuating postgraduate community, other institutions will cease to be universities.

Who'll be left on postgraduate courses? Well, we know absolutely nothing about postgraduate cohorts, so what follows is entirely anecdotal. In science, corporately funded individuals doing work for immediate application: the kind of blue-skies science which may or may not lead to world-changing discoveries will wither away or move abroad (bad news for quantum physics, astronomy etc.). In the humanities, research will consist of the posh, privileged people who colonise the Russell Group and have enormous family resources available to pay the huge fees and living expenses - an MA will soon become a kind of finishing school. PhDs will be restricted to the same well-heeled bunch and humanities teaching and research will fall into the hands of a conservative, elitist group with little interest in radical critique, with terrible consequences for undergraduates and the wider culture. This isn't to say that some Russell Group universities don't practice inclusion - but the tuition fees regime will weed out people without financial backing and leave them with little choice about whom to admit.

I meet them all the time at conferences and they're all nice, hugely intellectual and passionate about their subjects - but their grasp of the general reality is very limited. At one training course I attended, several moaned about their 'huge' classes: when pressed, they meant 15, and they gasped with disbelief when I explained that would be considered tiny at my place: we close down modules with fewer than 25 students.

Anyone without this kind of support will be excluded - such as the group of extremely talented English graduates I taught last year - now working at Café Rouge and similar places. Some will go abroad: my friend Jim, armed with an astoundingly good BA (including a published journal paper, almost unheard of), faced with £5000 fees for an MA at Birmingham, has opted for VU in Amsterdam: €1771. Will he come back? Why should he?

Still - no new postgraduates might mean that my 'temporary' contract lasts until I retire at 68! It's an ill wind…


oldgirlatuni said...

I do agree - the tuition fees are likely to deter the young from attempting post-graduate study.

However, I don't think that it will deter the more mature post-grad. I meet a few people in the same situation as me - who worked full-time in soul destroying jobs for 20 years or so, and then decided that they'd had enough of life at somebody else's coal face, liquidated their assets and started another phase in their lives.

Whether this is a good thing, I really can't be objective. But I do know that what I bring to the postgrad table is a passion, not just for my subject area, but also for the very experience of study. I wouldn't change it for the world.

I think that the mature postgrads also contribute something really important to undergrad teaching - particularly in those subjects that could be seen as vocational - that of experience in the work place, and the ability to convince students that the basic skills such as grammar and spelling are important - not just for getting good grades, but also for ensuring that you keep your job in the future!

The Plashing Vole said...

Now feeling ashamed at not mentioning the large number of mature PGs: I'm friends with several here. They're such a huge asset to the university, as you say.

Ellesar said...

Just want to point out that a DipSW no longer exists. A post graduate would do an MA in Social Work and would receive bursaries for it. At least that was the case when I did SW - 4 years ago - they may have dropped the bursaries by now!

Mrs Brightside said...

Only thing putting me off doing an MA is the price, bad times. x

Benjamin. said...

Firstly, Mrs Brightside, you look very much like Zooey Deschanel & I would encourage you to find a worthy but cheap MA (I've got onto a MA at Manchester University for £4000 which isn't too bad).

Secondly, I have seen many fellow English graduates including the ones you referred to, struggle receiving terrible service from the Job Centre & depending on the next JSA payment.. is that what the Government want? A generation of talent, ambition & desire washed away into the seas? The new scheme of bringing in unpaid workers into big companies for ‘experience’ will only benefit them in the long run, preventing recruitment of paid staff and filling roles with aplomb rather than promoting within.

What do you suggest should be done, Vole? I'd hope to see the fees reduced in a couple of years & more opportunities developed through foreign investment like the motor-industry as evident in the West Midlands it has been successful.

The Plashing Vole said...

Thanks all. Ellesar - thanks for the correction.
Ben: £4000 is still an awful lot, especially for new graduates. Though as I say, it's cheaper and often better overseas.

You're right about the foreign investment, though I'd point out that most of it in the Midlands is supported by massive government subsidies.

Wolverhampton graduates: there's a 20% discount for our MAs!

R D P said...

I agree with your general point but in your post you seem to conflate two separate groups -- Russell Group postgrads and postgrads from rich family backgrounds -- who are not at all identical. Many of the people who "colonise the Russell Group" at postgraduate level might seem "posh" and "privileged" and have deluded ideas about class size, but they still tend to be state- or institutionally-funded. They might have big vocabularies but they do not necessarily have "enormous" family resources and would no more be able to do postgraduate degrees without government/institutional support than would anybody else outside the top 5% or so of UK families. Now the concentration of funding at the Russell Group is a real issue, but it doesn't necessarily mean concentration of funding in rich students' hands. (In my experience, most of the posher types who populate Oxbridge undergraduate courses wouldn't want to waste three years on a PhD when they could slot into a City job instead.)

Yes, it's a bad thing that humanities research will be increasingly dominated by the Russell Group and yes, absolutely, it's a bad thing that those from rich families will be able to survive the cuts that hit everyone else; but conflating the two issues isn't necessarily helpful.