by Mark Bennett
, posted on 5 Aug '20

Why Postgraduate Student Finance is Confusing - And What You Can Do to Help Prospective Students With It

This will be the the fifth academic year in which UK student finance has been available for Masters degrees. As revolutionary as they were back in 2016, postgraduate loans may understandly feel like part of the furniture now – for marketers, for recruiters and for IAG professionals like me.

There's one group of people for whom this funding option isn't familiar though (and never really will be): prospective Masters students. This is partly because each new cohort obviously encounters and makes sense of student finance for the first time. But it's also because a signficant part of each new postgraduate cohort arrives fresh from a very different undergraduate system. The transition between the two can be disorientating, if not also disheartening and discouraging.

I want to explain why that's the case, what it means for prospective students and what postgraduate marketers and recruiters – like you – can do to help.

What are postgraduate loans, anyway?

On the face of it, postgraduate Masters degree loans are fairly simple. English-resident UK students aged under 60 can access income-contingent loans of up to £11,222 to study their first Masters degree.*

The essential points of the system aren't hard to explain (I just did so in 22 words) and the detail is easy to cover with more complete postgraduate loan guides (chances are your institution maintains a resource of its own, or links to ours).

The problems arise when students start asking some very reasonable questions about this student finance.

*I'm speaking here of the loans available from Student Finance England. The existence of three other UK postgraduate finance systems can add its own wrinkles, of course.

Notes from the IAG front-lines

I discuss postgraduate funding with several hundred prospective Masters students a year (and that's just one-to-one at our postgraduate study fairs; events I'm pleased to say we're continuing online).

This has made me a bit of a postgraduate loan geek. Were I ever to go on Mastermind, my tiebreaker question would probably be something like 'Can someone who's completed school in Edinburgh get a Masters loan from Student Finance England to study for an MPhil in Cardiff?' (yes, provided MPhil is the intended exit qualification and they've recently been living in England).

It's also meant that I'm very familiar with the questions students commonly ask about the loans, right after you've explained the basic details above. They go roughly as follows:

  • "Where do I borrow the rest?"
  • "Is there a maintenance loan too, then?"
  • "How do I actually pay for a Masters with this?"

I repeat these not to suggest that the postgraduate finance is fundamentally inadequate or ineffective; there's detailed and compelling evidence that the loans have increased participation in and access to further study.

But they do seem very odd to current or recent undergraduates. And it's not hard to see why.

The vast majority of Bachelors students can take out an SFE loan that pays their university the full cost of their tuition fees, with the option to access a separate and additional maintenance loan, paid to them according to an assessment of their needs.

None of these things is true for the postgraduate loan.

£11,222 isn't the cost of a Masters (or of any one Masters that I'm aware of) and there isn't any separate maintenance loan. Instead students receive a seemingly arbitrary amount that doesn't bear any obvious relationship to their course fees, their wider costs or their financial circumstances. It's simply paid into their bank account for them to budget with as best they can.

Why does any of this matter?

The opening of postgraduate loan applications in May-June is now a key part of the PGT application cycle.

For those students who are already in the pipeline, the arrival of launch messaging from SFE helps validate and affirm the feasibility of their decision to do a Masters. For those who were undecided about postgraduate study and / or unaware of the availability of student finance, this is a key nudge point. You might go as far as saying that this is the closest thing we have to a PGT clearing.

But this is also the point at which students can find themselves hitting a wall; especially those who've been content to rely on the fact that there is a loan, in the assumption that it offers equivalent support to their undergraduate finance.

To really understand this situation you need to put yourself in the shoes of someone faced with a finance system that seems both inadequate and indifferent to the costs they will actually face as a postgraduate student.

What can you do about it?

A large number of your prospective postgraduates will find themselves in the above scenario each year. It's one where a bit of understanding and empathy in marketing and recruitment messaging can make a big difference and achieve genuinely authentic engagement in the process.

Here are three suggestions to start with:

1) Put (your) fees and funding in context

There are lots of guides to the postgraduate loan system out there. Some are fairly vestigial. Others, like ours, are anything but (more on that in a moment). Yet if all you're doing as a university is putting up a fairly boilerplate guide then you may be missing a big opportunity.

The students who are reading about postgraduate finance on your website aren't just there to learn about postgraduate finance: they're trying to work out how it will enable them to study at your university. So help them do that.

Relate the loan to typical fees for different categories of Masters. Even if it isn't enough to cover them entirely (not necessarily your fault) you can still show how much smaller those fees look with the loan taken into account.

Then, show how other funding from your institution (including alumni discounts) might further close the distance.

Even if you can't eliminate the funding gap entirely, you'll have made postgraduate study at your university look much more achievable. What's more, you'll also have demonstrated that you understand and empathise with the position those prospective students are in. That's a really easy way to stand out, especially if every other university website is just posting the loan amount and eligibility criteria.

2) Explain how students actually make this work

Your university will have current Masters students who are supported by the postgraduate loan. And they will have solved the problems your prospective students are currently trying to solve.

Chances are they've done so by drawing on savings, income and supplementary grants or scholarships (including your own). None of these is a particularly novel approach in principal, and none offer a 'silver bullet' solution to postgraduate funding. But that's not the point. By demonstrating how everything sticks together in practice you're providing exactly the sort of affirmation prospective students need. And you're doing it for study your university.

Ask some of your students to share their stories, honestly and authentically. Even better if you can get a range for different circumstances and subject areas.

3) Answer questions

The postgraduate loan is a one-size-fits-all funding solution for the most diverse level of study in higher education: one where courses, qualifications and fees all differ vastly.

Students will have many other questions besides those related to the actual loan amount (trust me). The answers aren't necessarily that complicated and they're often positive. But they can be hard for people to find.

We maintain a very exhaustive FAQ for precisely this reason. At my last count there are answers there for over 60 specific questions, ranging from course eligibility for intercalated qualifications to transitioning between different UK student finance providers.

I'm not suggesting you try and maintain something equivalent (it's a lot of work) but you can answer questions that are more specific to your university. Do you run a particular programme with quirky eligibility criteria? Do you recruit lots of students from other parts of the UK who aren't sure which student finance to apply for now?

You'll probably know the kinds of questions your prospective students ask (or you'll have colleagues somewhere who do). Answering them up front reinforces confidence, demonstrates empathy and – like the other suggestions above – could genuinely boost engagement at a key point in the PGT application cycle.

Incidentally, if you get a postgraduate loan question you can't answer and you can't find it in our FAQ, let me know: [email protected]

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