Posted on 29 Nov '22

What Can Universities Actually do About the Cost of Masters Study?

The cost-of-living crisis is making it harder to afford a Masters and, as we saw last month, that's having an impact on prospective students.

The greater problem is that Masters study was already becoming more expensive:

The above chart plots the average UK Masters fee since 2014-15 against the annual value of the SFE Masters loan since its introduction in 2016-17.

This is the very definition of digital napkin math (if such a thing can be defined) as accurate data for UK Masters fees is hard to come by and there's a vast range of different course types and price points behind any single average. I've used data here from the Complete University Guide's Reddin Survey (a valiant, but limited, attempt to collect and rationalise all this). I've also used the SFE Masters loan as a representative option (available to the majority of UK PGT students).

In any case, it seems pretty clear that UK Masters fees have been outpacing the available student finance. This is one of several problems with PGT study and, no, it's not universities' fault. But it is being exacerbated by the current situation in which the shrinking amount of 'leftover' postgraduate loan is required to go ever further.

So what can universities – specifically university marketing and recruitment teams – actually do about it?

#1 Do not assume any of this makes sense to students

I've written about this before, but, put simply:

An undergraduate student pays the same price for almost any degree at any university in any subject and receives a fee loan sending exactly that amount to their provider, along with a separate (albeit generally inadequate) maintenance loan.

A postgraduate student receives a seemingly arbitrary amount direct to their bank and is then responsible for budgeting fees and living costs out of a loan that might not cover either.

All of this needs to be explained to prospective applicants who perhaps don't realise they need the explanation. Telling them a loan is available is a start (we found that roughly 25% of undergraduates didn't know this) but passively explaining the key details or linking to an external guide (even a really detailed one) isn't enough to really help students – or differentiate your institution.

Try to be more proactive than this. Make your funding team as visible and easy to engage with as possible. Don't just give them a talk at the open day; give them a stand.

And be interventionist with the information. Lead with messaging around the differences and potential misunderstandings. Not 'did you know you can get a loan for a Masters? Here's a .gov weblink.' but 'PG student finance is different: here's what you might not realise.'

#2 Rationalise as much as possible

Every single university should be able to tell prospective PGs what loan amount they can get and how. But only you can explain what that means, in practice, at your institution. And you should.

First, be honest that a loan won't cover your fees and their living costs. Students are going to figure that out pretty soon and better for both parties if they do that with you on hand to guide them.

Second, make it as easy as possible to see what those fees and living costs are. Bear in mind that someone may not know exactly what programme they want to do yet so try to offer some sort of representative figure (caveated accordingly) alongside exact fees on course pages. For living costs, use the best data you have: accommodation prices for your halls vs local landlord networks; surveys of your previous students; etc.

Third, get these numbers next to each other. Your PG fees are £8,500. Term-time living costs in private halls are roughly the same. The loan is just shy of £12,000, so the student needs at least £5,000 in savings, part-time income or other funding.

None of this can be exact, but it can still go a long way to helping prospective students understand the practicalities of PG study at and around your university. That's not only really helpful; it also makes you a place where Masters study makes more sense (literally).

#3 Segment information for different groups of students

PG cohorts are varied and their needs are different:

  • International students will need to budget for visas, healthcare surcharge and other costs related to travel and communication.
  • Older 'returner' students may not need accommodation near campus, but they might want to know what the commuting costs are from suburbs / nearby cities – or what childcare options are available when they get to you.
  • Undergraduate continuers probably need to know more about local part-time work options; they may also not realise that campus accommodation is potentially available again.

It's about giving people the information they actually need and letting them know they're in the right place. Your web content team is probably great at this, so let them rip.

#4 Be up front about part-time work

In an ideal world, nobody would need to work to cover the ongoing cost of being a Masters student. But the reality is that lots will; it's better to guide that process than to overlook it.

In my experience, some universities do this very well, suggesting sensible limits (typically 15 hours per week) and even going as far as to link up networks of local employers as well as their own campus job hubs.

This is also a nice chance to be open and encouraging about the different kinds of work postgraduate students can do. They're graduates now, after all.

#5 Don't just repurpose undergraduate advice

Sure, some information scales just fine from UG to PGT. Accommodation and utilities aren't charged at a higher rate for Masters students and the price of a coffee is the same (even if the amount you consume isn't).

But there are some pretty important changes. For example, do students need to plan (and budget) for accommodation out of term, when research projects mean they need access to labs and libraries?

There are also things that students may not realise stay the same – e.g. student discounts and access to facilities and support via the SU.

If you've got decent UG content, reviewing and reworking it for PG probably isn't a big job, but it will help students feel they're in (and heading to) the right place.

#6 Exemplify everything you can

I give several funding talks to prospective PGs at our study fairs each year, covering many of the points above. I try to end on an encouraging note by pointing out that many of the students I spoke to last year will be this year's postgrads... and the same will be true for many of my current audience, next year.

As challenging as PG fees and funding are, people make it work, every year. Many of them are on your campus and their stories can help rationalise and contextualise prospective students challenges. All of the stuff above, basically.

Ambassador content is hardly a revolutionary suggestion, but this is the best deployment for it, in my opinion.

#7 Other things

There are plenty of tips that feel too obvious to discuss above and I'm sure there are many more I've overlooked. Here are some quickfire additions:

  • Have a funding database, searchable if possible.
  • Publish checklists of major external funding schemes, ideally with opening dates as well as deadlines.
  • Remember there are four different PG loan schemes and all are portable. Don't just cover your 'local' option.
  • Don't forget about EU students. There are plenty with settled / pre-settled status who are still eligible for student finance. Irish students can access this too.
  • Get your SU involved (especially if they have a PG officer) to help explain campus facilities, subsidised services – general 'support for PGs on campus'.
  • Anticipate common questions. Yes, you know that the PGL is available for part-time distance learning MRes degrees, but prospective students will quite reasonably ask about all of those things.
  • Make your fees schedule really obvious, make sure it fits loan payments and reassure people that it does. Remember, most domestic students won't have had to manage fee payments themselves before.

I'll gladly expand if anyone has additional suggestions.

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