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A Quiet Revolution: UK Postgraduate Loans in 2017 and Beyond

The value of postgraduate Masters loans is rising to £10,280 and further schemes are planned across the UK next year. We’ve taken a look at the postgraduate finance landscape from 2017-18 and explained what providers and students need to know.

The unpredictability of UK higher education trends in 2017 is already becoming a predictable refrain.

The Government’s Higher Education and Research Bill presents major reforms to degree awarding powers and new providers, but has encountered obstacles in the Lords.

These must now be surmounted in time for a ‘Brexit Bill’ that could introduce almost as many changes for universities, with concerns over student recruitment heightened by Ministers’ ambiguous (and potentially antagonistic) rhetoric on visa changes.

Yet a quieter – and far more positive – revolution has already taken place across part of the sector.

In August last year, the Government introduced new student loans for postgraduate Masters courses. The first cohort to benefit from this support are now in their second term of study and initial figures suggest that uptake may have been substantial.

The Government’s own initial proposals anticipated that 40,000 students would apply for a masters loan, of which 10,000 would not otherwise have continued to postgraduate study.

The Student Loans Company has now indicated that over 85,000 individuals actually registered to apply for a loan in 2016.

It remains to be seen how many of those applications were successful, or whether the loan will reverse the slight downward trend in postgraduate enrolments seen since 2012/13. But signs are encouraging. And 2017 is set to bring more welcome changes for UK postgraduate recruitment.

2017 Masters loan changes – slight, but significant

The value of the current Masters loans is rising for 2017, from £10,000 to £10,280.

This 2.8% increase may not be earth-shattering, but it sets an encouraging precedent in a time of concern over rising tuition fees at all levels.

The Government has yet to revise its own student-facing web pages, but the Student Loans Company is updating its practitioner resources. FindAUniversity have also confirmed the new amount in meetings with Student Finance England and updated our student resources on FindAMasters.com.

The key points for providers are as follows:

  • Loans of £10,280 will be available to students in academic year 2017-18.
  • Current eligibility criteria will continue to apply.
  • The higher amount will only be available to new applicants in £10,280. Under normal circumstances, 2016-17 applicants will still only be able to borrow up to £10,000.

Another significant change to the 2017-18 loans concerns part-time courses over two years in length. Students on these programmes will now be able to receive loan payments in the third and fourth years of their Masters.

This makes the loans more flexible. However, providers may need to ensure their fee structure is able to accommodate students whose financial support is paid in smaller instalments, spread across an entire programme.

Monitoring student information needs

Though these changes are positive, there exists some potential for confusion amongst applicants.

FindAUniversity will continue to provide up-to-date information to students, on our FindAMasters and FindAPhD websites and at our events.

Our team will also be happy to answer questions from university recruitment, admissions or marketing staff and to provide useful resources for your students. Please don’t hesitate to contact our Content Editor, Mark, with any enquiries.

Expanding access to loans: Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales

Residency was probably the most contentious eligibility criterion for the 2016-17 loans.

Scottish-, Northern Irish- and Welsh-resident students were unable to apply for postgraduate finance - even when doing so to continue at an English university where they’d studied for three years as undergraduates.

This restriction isn’t being removed for 2017-18, but it may not need to be.

Other parts of the UK have been working on their own postgraduate loan options and it now seems highly likely that support will be available for all UK students, at Masters level, in 2017:

  • Scotland has confirmed postgraduate loans of up to £10,000 (divided into £5,500 for fees and £4,500 for living costs) from 2017-18.
  • Northern Ireland has confirmed postgraduate tuition-fee loans of up to £5,500 from 2017-18.
  • Wales has confirmed postgraduate loans for 2017-18, offering up to £10,280 on a similar basis to the existing ‘English’ loans.

Some details of these loans are similar: all are for Masters-level courses, are primarily intended for students resident in the appropriate country, and are potentially portable across the UK.

Other details differ quite substantially. Whilst the English and Welsh loans are paid directly to students as a ‘contribution to costs’, the Northern Irish and Scottish loans are wholly or partly intended for tuition fees, with payments made to institutions.

Meanwhile, whilst all four loan options are available for taught Masters degrees, the eligibility of research programmes or of Postgraduate Certificate and Diploma courses varies.

Universities, along with their admissions and finance staff, will also need to understand the varying needs – and means – of a newly segmented postgraduate recruitment market.

Our team will also be happy to provide advice and resources to providers during an interesting year for postgraduate recruitment. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Assisting your students

With four separate loan systems likely to be in place for academic year 2017-18, the next cohort of postgraduate study at UK institutions may be more accessible to more students than ever before.

However, individual students will need access to clear information and guidance on the options that are (and aren’t) available to them.

We’ll be keeping out student resources updated on FindAMasters, with detailed guides to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish plans (as well as the existing 'English' loans).

We’ve also produced a simple print guide to postgraduate funding for the coming year, with contributions from the Student Loans Company, Research Councils UK and other organisations.

You’re welcome to circulate this guide to students, electronically. Simply fill out the form below to access a copy.


Fill out my online form.

Brexit and UK Higher Education – the Elephant Stampedes Across the Conference Room

Mark Bennett, FindAUniversity Ltd

If UK universities approached last week’s Conservative Party Conference hoping for some clarity on the future of EU students, staff and funding, they left sorely disappointed. Instead the sector has been thrown into doubt over the future of internationalisation in general.

Statements from the Prime Minister and Home Secretary have been met with equal bemusement and dismay, calling into question the future of international student recruitment and doing so in worryingly vague terms.

The Brexit (in) March

June’s referendum result surprised many in higher education, but the storm was soon followed by relative calm.

Jo Johnson, the Minister for Universities and Science (and a supporter of the Remain campaign) was quick to offer assurances for current EU students and those beginning a course in the 2016-17 academic year. In both cases eligibility to study in the UK would be maintained and access to domestic fee and finance conditions would continue.

This would be the case – in principle – until the UK triggers Article 50 and begins the process of leaving the European Union.

The Prime Minister’s recent announcement threw these assumptions into confusion, but Johnson is to be commended for his further reassurance this week that current fee and funding arrangements for EU students - in England at least - will apply to courses beginning in 2017-18.

Moving the safety net forward a year at a time is of little long-term value, however. Clarity is needed for those who might consider starting a course after 2018 – and for universities planning their recruitment and course provision.

Perhaps it is not too much to ask that the government also specifies what it wishes to see from future international and EU-27 recruitment. Johnson’s words are encouraging. The Prime Minister and Home Secretary’s aren’t.

The value of postgraduate provision

A lack of clarity over Brexit and the future of international recruitment is a particular issue at postgraduate level.

According to HESA data, EU recruitment accounted for nearly 12% of students on taught Masters programmes in 2014-15.

These students are not just concentrated at postgraduate level: they are also concentrated on particular courses and institutions. And, as Times Higher Education reported in July, there is a very real concern that some degree programmes could be left exposed to a drop in EU recruitment.

This isn’t simply a financial issue. It also relates directly to the ‘quality’ of UK universities, in perception and in practice.

The Home Secretary introduced her comments on higher education by paying tribute to the UK’s ‘world-leading centres of academic excellence’. The Prime Minister also spoke of ‘a country that boasts three of the top ten universities in the world’.

Both statements presumably refer to the publication of the latest Times Higher Education World University Ranking. Three universities (Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College London) do indeed make the top ten this year and a UK institution (Oxford) takes the number one spot for the first time in the ranking’s history.

Yet nearly 10% of the metrics used to determine that ranking are based directly on Oxford’s internationalisation, including its recruitment of international students. And nearly 20% of the university’s postgraduate students were EU citizens in 2014-15.

Meanwhile, the UK as a whole educates 10% of the world’s international students. The only country to welcome more is the USA – coincidentally the only country to outperform the UK in global rankings.

Championing the quality of our universities whilst cutting them off from the international talent that maintains and affirms that quality seems misguided at best.

International recruitment – the end of ‘one size fits all’

The least favourable outcome of a hard Brexit would be for future EU students to simply be treated as international applicants.

Prior to the conference there was some consensus as to what this might mean. Students would require Tier 4 visas, would be charged fees at the higher rate and would lose access to public funding – including the new postgraduate Masters loans.

Unfortunately, this understanding only lasted until the Home Secretary gave her speech.

In a surprise attack on international recruitment, Rudd challenged the current tier 4 visa system and its underlying assumptions. Her attempt to explain what might replace it was little more than a confusing and partially incoherent gesture.

A strange definition of generosity

Rudd began by rejecting ‘a student immigration system that treats every student and university as equal’ on the basis that this ‘only punishes those we should want to help’.

It wasn’t exactly clear who the beneficiaries of this ‘help’ should be, but they certainly didn’t appear to include universities.

Higher education, it was implied, had been in receipt of an unnecessarily ‘generous offer’ in being allowed to recruit international students.

Meanwhile, those same students had, ‘irrespective of their talents’, benefited from ‘favourable employment prospects’. This presumably refers to the standard requirement that international students find a job paying over £20,800 a year within four months of graduation – and do so with an employer that hasn’t succeeded in finding a UK candidate for the post.

Nothing about this offer is particularly favourable and it is only independent of an individual’s talents in so far as it presumably relies on rather a lot of luck too. As UKCISA has made clear, a mere 1% of international students (5,000 out of 430,000) were able to take advantage of it last year.

One possible beneficiary of the government’s hitherto ‘generous’ student visa system might have been the UK economy, but Rudd didn’t seem certain of this. Instead she promised to check whether international student recruitment was ‘really adding value to our economy’. The answer to this is ‘yes’ – to the tune of around £13.5 billion.

Future proposals and consultation may explain the rationale behind these proposals (as well as clarifying exactly what they propose).

The concern is that there may not be a policy justification, beyond a continued desire to reduce ‘net migration’ to the tens of thousands.

This is deeply worrying if so - ignoring coherent and well-evidenced campaigns by sector bodies and mission groups such as Universities UK. The government’s commitment to its target seems bloody-minded, but the determination to include international students within that figure looks set to leave someone with a bloody nose.

A multi-tier-tier-four visa?

It isn’t clear what the new student visa system will involve (beyond a name change) or how it would actually work.

Rudd spoke on the one hand of those universities that ‘follow the rules’ and, on the other, of restricting visas for ‘lower quality courses’. The two terms seem oddly incongruous, but they may be revealing.

One possibility is that the government plans to extend its visa pilot scheme, which offers extensions to taught Masters students at Imperial College London, The University of Bath, The University of Oxford and The University of Cambridge.

These universities have been selected based on their sponsorship record and the government may use similar criteria to distinguish between different ‘tiers’ of visa. Rudd seemed to suggest as much when her speech equated ‘our best universities’ with ‘those that stick to the rules’.

The question is how far this scheme could extend – and in how many directions.

At best we may see a surprising – and perhaps welcome – return to some form of post-study work visa, with the top tier of universities able to grant an extended leave for graduates to seek employment in the UK.

At worst we could see caps on international student numbers arrive via the back-door, with restrictions at institutional level and indirect financial penalties for those universities affected. Combined with a hard Brexit, this could be particularly debilitating for universities that currently rely on EU recruitment to sustain part of their postgraduate provision.

Another role for the TEF?

The Home Secretary’s reference to the ‘quality’ of universities makes far more sense in the context of the government’s impending Teaching Excellence Framework.

The TEF is intended to group universities into separate tiers – now identified, to some amusement and bemusement, with Gold, Silver and Bronze standards. The most visible function of this is to alter the amount an institution can charge its undergraduates.

In other words, the TEF will group universities according to ‘quality’ and have a direct effect on their income. As such, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that some connection may be drawn between TEF ratings and the right to recruit international students or sponsor their visas.

If true this will impose an additional penalty for any institutions considering opting out of the TEF: international recruitment may become the stick that follows the carrot of increased fees – a stick that operates at both undergraduate and postgraduate level.

Students of nowhere?

On Wednesday the Prime Minister equated being a ‘citizen of the world’ with being ‘a citizen of nowhere’ and a lack of understanding of ‘what the very word “citizenship” means’.

To be a citizen in these very literal terms is to be subject to exclusions. To be a part of a ‘here’, but not a ‘there’.

International students, by definition, are not these kinds of citizens. And this is not the kind of citizenship our universities teach and foster when they welcome the students - and citizens - of the world.

FindAUniversity are not alone in their views on the recent developments in government policy. Many other mission groups, stakeholders and sector bodies have taken similar positions:

Mark Bennett is the Content Editor for FindAUniversity Ltd. He tweets in a personal capacity at @postsgradually

EU students unaware of UK postgraduate loan opportunity

With a new HE Bill on its way through parliament and the extension of student loans to masters degrees from August, 2016 looks set to be a landmark year for UK higher education. Postgraduate recruitment at english universities is likely to see growth in home student numbers, but are other EU students aware that they can also benefit from the UK postgraduate loans scheme?

We’ve teamed up with our friends at SMRS to ask EU students about UK education, Brexit and their awareness of the new loans scheme. Here are a few key highlights:

  • A survey of almost 800 EU nationals has revealed 47% of EU nationals are unaware that a £10,000 loan will be available for Masters degrees in England from August 2016.
  • 83% of EU nationals would be more likely to study a postgraduate qualification in the UK once aware of this funding.
  • 57% of EU nationals would be less likely to consider postgraduate study in the UK were Britain to vote to leave the EU. Based on HESA data this could represent a potential loss of over £750 million to the UK economy.

English universities would be well advised to begin raising awareness of postgraduate loans amongst potential EU Masters students.

For a full copy of the report, please email me at apritchard@findauniversity.com

The HE White Paper – What could it mean for Postgraduates?

It’s an important time for UK universities as the government publishes a new White Paper: Success as a knowledge economy teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice.

The document is the first major higher education policy to be put forward by the Conservative government and, true to form, it proposes some substantial changes to the organisation and regulation of UK universities.

But what does it all mean for Masters and PhD students? Or for postgraduate provision in UK HE? Quite a bit, potentially.

The government has already shown that it’s not afraid to shake up postgraduate education – with the introduction of new Masters degree loans only a few months away. We’ve taken a look at the white paper to see if there could be any similarly important developments on the horizon.

New providers may include postgraduate specialists

The White Paper proposes to make it much easier for new institutions to gain degree-awarding powers – and even become full universities.

Currently, there are two broad categories of UK institutions with Degree Awarding Powers (DAPs) in the UK:

  • HEFCE-funded providers receive public money from the Higher Education Funding Council for England. These universities are allowed to award degrees and their students are able to take out student loans.
  • Alternative providers are not directly funded by HEFCE and must satisfy a series of criteria before they can award degrees and receive students funded by loans.

The White Paper proposes that all providers are regulated by the same body, a new Office for Students (OfS). It will also make it much easier – and faster – for new ‘challenger institutions’ to gain degree awarding powers and receive student loans in the short-term.

What does this mean for postgraduates?

On an obvious level, this shift in regulation is likely to see an increase in the number of institutions awarding degrees in the UK.

We don’t yet know what this expanded sector will look like, but it’s quite possible that some new providers – and eventually new universities – could seek to focus on postgraduate education and training.

Some current alternative providers are already specialist institutions, offering postgraduate courses tailored to particular fields and professions.

As more institutions enter the sector it’s possible that the range of choices available to UK postgraduates could increase substantially – particularly if these institutions become entitled to receive students funded by the new Masters (and PhD) loans.

Will all new providers be able to award postgraduate degrees? And what about PhDs?

Currently, there are different categories of Degree Awarding Powers (DAP) in the UK:

  • Foundation Degree Awarding Powers (FDAP) allow sixth form colleges and other further education providers the ability to award foundation degrees.
  • Taught Degree Awarding Powers (TDAP) allow higher education providers the right to award taught bachelors and Masters degrees.
  • Research Degree Awarding Powers (RDAP) allow institutions to also award PhDs and research-based Masters degrees.

The White Paper will make it simpler for new providers to gain TDAPs (and potentially award taught Masters degrees).

But the granting of RDAPs (and the right to award postgraduate research degrees) will take longer. The government recognises that a track record of quality and expertise is necessary to support PhDs and other advanced research qualifications.

Postgraduate teaching will be assessed

The White Paper follows through on a Conservative manifesto promise to introduce a ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ (TEF). This will be similar to the current Research Excellence Framework (REF), but, as its name suggests, the tef will focus on teaching, not research.

Universities that do well in the TEF may be able to raise their maximum undergraduate fees above the current £9,000 cap, in line with inflation.

What does this mean for postgraduates?

Taught postgraduate courses (including most Masters degrees) won’t be covered by the TEF at the outset, but will be phased in during the system’s fourth year.

Postgraduate research degrees (such as PhDs) won’t be covered by the TEF. The quality of PhD supervision will still be maintained, but it won’t be part of an overall teaching quality assessment.

Could Masters fees increase?

Unlike undergraduate degrees, fees for UK postgraduate courses aren’t capped.

This means that TEF performance won’t lead directly to higher postgraduate fees. However, it’s theoretically possible that high-performing universities might increase Masters fees on the basis of higher TEF scores (particularly with the increased availability of postgraduate loans).

It’s also possible that any future regulation of postgraduate fees could involve TEF-related increases. This is probably unlikely though. This government’s emphasis is very much on reducing regulation in higher education, not increasing it.

Research funding and administration is being reorganised

Restrictions on Research Degree Awarding Powers mean that PhD students are unlikely to be immediately affected by a rise in new providers. And limitations to the TEF mean that PhD supervision won’t be subject to new assessment and monitoring.

But the White Paper does include a new policy that could have important implications for research students: a reorganisation of UK research funding.

Currently public money for UK research is managed by the seven members of Research Councils UK (RCUK), each of which has responsibility for a specific academic discipline.

Whilst HEFCE provides ‘quality related’ funding to institutions according to their research performance, the Research Councils fund specific projects, including PhD studentships. This is known as the ‘dual support system’.

The White Paper will maintain the dual support system, but all research funding will be overseen by a single new body: UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

What does this mean for postgraduates?

The UK Research Councils will continue to operate under the supervision of UKRI and will still be the main source of public funding for PhDs.

However, UKRI will take responsibility for increasing interdisciplinary and cross-cutting work that draws on the expertise of multiple Research Councils.

This might have an effect on PhD funding should UKRI seek to broaden the disciplinary and institutional scope of the current Doctoral Training Centres and Doctoral Training Partnerships within which most Research Council studentships are awarded.

What about PhD loans?

Of course, changes to PhD funding were already confirmed, with a system of £25,000 doctoral loans announced for 2018.

The White Paper reiterates a commitment to offer this funding ‘in addition to grant funding by Research Councils not as a replacement for it’. It also proposes a consultation on PhD loans to take place later this year.

The longer-term impact of doctoral loans being introduced alongside research funding changes remains to be seen.

Roundup

Those are the main points of interest for postgraduates, but there are a few other elements of the White Paper that may prove to be significant:

  • Improvements to flexible study: The government wants to make it easier for students to transfer credits between universities and increase the options available for degree-level study. The White Paper is therefore accompanied by a call for evidence on credit transfer and accumulation. Changes here could theoretically pave the way for new postgraduate options – including the opportunity for expanded distance learning or joint degree programmes.
  • An emphasis on the economic impact of degrees: The White Paper is underpinned by a belief in the value of undergraduate and postgraduate education to individuals and the UK economy. This is the same logic behind the introduction of postgraduate loans. In fact, the government believes that 1 in 7 jobs could require a postgraduate qualification by 2022. We can expect to see more focus on the value of a Masters and postgraduate employability.
  • A focus on England – for the moment: Higher education policy is a devolved matter. As such, the White Paper mainly addresses English institutions. However, some changes – such as the reorganisation of the Research Councils – will affect postgraduates elsewhere in the UK and other nations may follow with their own changes to university regulation and funding.

What happens next?

The HE White Paper marks the beginning of an important period in the evolution of UK higher education, but its policies aren’t finalised yet.

Different groups have already begun to respond to the White Paper and we can expect more of this in the coming weeks. Some of these comments may lead to changes as the contents of the White Paper pass into legislation.