Postgraduate funding is increasingly regularly making the news. This week’s story featured an exasperated postgraduate applicant, Damien Shannon, who is suing St. Hugh’s College, Oxford, alleging that it has unfairly discriminated against him on grounds of wealth. As he describes in his blog for the Guardian, Mr. Shannon had an offer of a place on the MSc in Economic and Social History with strong support from the University’s economic historians. In the absence of a scholarship he planned to pay his own fees and work to support himself. However the College’s insistence that he have both the tuition fee and a full year’s maintenance in advance (reportedly £21k) ruled him out. It would rule me out too and I have a full-time professional job; so what hope is there for a new graduate unless s/he has rich and generous relatives?
It’s a troubling case and not the only example I’m aware of. It is particularly sad that the whole thing has reached the stage of litigation, which I doubt will help anyone much. I hope it leads Oxford to have a re-think and revise their requirements here, which on the maintenance front at least, seem substantially out of step with the rest of the sector, for British applicants at least.
The implications for social mobility are pretty clear. If applicants without a scholarship need close to a year’s full time median UK salary in the bank to gain admission, then it’s a scholarship or nothing for postgraduate applicants from working-class and lower-middle-class backgrounds (i.e. for most people, it’s nothing). Of course, postgraduate scholarships are not means tested at Oxford or anywhere else – no US-style needs-blind admissions here. What few scholarships there are could go to students who are academically able but in no financial need.
Surely, some flexibility on maintenance is required? Those aspiring masters students who can scrape together the fees and budget themselves through 12 months with savings here and a part-time job there deserve encouragement. It’s far from an ideal situation and I wouldn’t want to romanticise such self-sacrifice but it does seem perverse that evident personal enterprise and commitment to learning can be blocked through inflexible regulations. I’m sure Oxford is not wilfully trying to exclude the disadvantaged. I don’t doubt that the rules were thought up out of a concern, however wonky and paternalistic their logic may be, to avoid putting postgraduate students into hardship. The outcome might be unintended, but it plainly doesn’t help the disadvantaged (and for Oxford’s critics, there is a whiff of Jude the Obscure about it).
The underlying issue, which both sides in this case would surely agree on, is the lack of up-front student finance for taught postgraduate study. Were there access to loans for masters students, this case would not have arisen. It would be great to have increased public subsidy for postgraduate education, but right now it’s at the back of a very long queue, even within post-compulsory education. Resurrecting the Education Maintenance Allowance and AimHigher ought to have priority.
So what are the prospects for bridging the postgraduate funding gap? I will turn to those in my next post.