By Jess Patterson, Free Education Manchester
- Half-baked proposals to paper over cracks in a system of debt and marketization
- £10,000 Masters loans not enough
- Over-30s pushed out by financial calculation
- “Crowd-funding” proposals for postgrad research are a vacuous gimmick
- Government seeks to trade number of research studentships against stipend levels
- Private funding will increase business control of education and research
- We need free education and living stipends for all – tax the rich!
This March the government launched a two-month consultation on a set of proposals designed to tackle declining post-graduate study. You can find the documents here.
In summary, these documents detail the government’s proposal for a taught-Masters loan (originally announced in December), as well as some suggestions on how to bolster existing platforms for funding postgraduate research (as mentioned in the Budget).
Under the current system there is a real need for this kind of funding, and not all of the proposals are terrible, but there is a dangerous lack of transparency about why this intervention is needed at all. As the HESA (Higher Education Statistics Agency) data shows, the number of students undertaking Masters reached its peak in 2007/08 (prior to fee-hikes) and has, tellingly, since then only declined. These proposals are essentially, therefore, a panicked response to the emerging consequences of the damage inflicted on higher education by both the Blairite and Coalition governments: a situation that has gone from bad to worse following the regime of fee rises, funding cuts and marketisation that this government has systematically pursued.
That the government is turning its attention to this crisis is in part a response to pressure from postgrads organising through groups like NCAFC, and in part a response to the demand from universities who experiencing financially disquieting drops in applications for postgraduate taught (PGT) degrees. NCAFC will work to insure that the conversation is answerable to us and not just this neoliberal model of university finance. What follows is a detailed summary of the proposals and my response to them. The problem determined is that these proposals are an attempt to disguise the damaging consequences of marketisation under the heading of widening access, but with no real concern for it.
This crisis is a consequence of the neo-liberal university
The consultation document itself begins with the damning evidence that the number of PGT entrants grew by only 7% between 2008/9 and 2010/11 and then fell by a staggering 17% over the next three years. Later, it also adds that HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) analysis in 2013-15 identified that disadvantaged students are far less likely to progress to postgraduate taught Master’s and/or postgraduate research study. That is, in comparing students with exactly the same degree classifications, those from lower-income households are disproportionally disadvantaged because of the lack of financial opportunities. Likewise women and people from minority ethnic groups also demonstrate significantly lower progression rates. This is, of course, merely confirmation of countless academic studies of the barriers to social mobility in the higher education sector. In the consultation document this evidence is cited correctly as evidence of the need to provide post-graduate funding. Yet, the proposals actually outlined don’t match this evidence. There is a complete absence from the discussion that this is very likely a direct effect of the barriers placed on such students from the outset by the already financially crippling system of student debt. Instead, it simply suggests that yet more debt is the answer: a ‘solution’ which simply ignores that fact that all the statistics used in this consultation document could be turned on their head to be presented as poignant evidence of the failure of the neo-liberal university.
More debt is not the answer
The central proposal is the introduction of a £10,000 loan for taught Master programmes. The reason that a Masters degree is so key is that it is increasingly an entry requirement for doctoral degrees. Consequently it has been identified as the point at which many people with aspirations to partake in further study are permanently turned away, placing an alarming constraint on the future diversity of researchers. While this is fundamental for those concerned with all aspects of free education there are more alarming consequences from the government’s perspective, such as the lack of domestic students crossing this bridge and a resulting drop in skills. That the government is prioritising the latter concern becomes very quickly evident in the limitations they place on the proposed solutions. For example, the rationale that this should be a partial loan, rather than a higher figure covering all expenses, is argued according to the principle that cost should remain a deterrent to studying: “this balances the incentives to ensure students will continue to make considered and informed decisions about pursuing education at this level”.
This is further justified on the basis that a full-loan would result in fee-inflation, something against which they ambiguously propose that they will “establish safeguards” – while completely ruling out the only mechanism by which this could truly be affected: the regulation of fees. In addition, loan-repayment would be income contingent, operating on a similar system to undergraduate loans. Interest would be at RPI + 3%, i.e. equal to the maximum interest rate on the post-2012 undergrad loan system, with repayments set at 9% on earnings over £21k. This is, of course, all on top of the 9% that most of these students will already be paying on their undergraduate loans. All of this fundamentally misses the source of the problem that they have created: increasing barriers to the access of higher education from undergraduate to postgraduate level as a result of an untenable system of student debt.
Age limits: targeting the most in need or the logic of debt as an asset?
Another interesting aspect of the proposal is a suggestion that eligibility for the loan be restricted to persons under the age of thirty. The justification for this is that younger students are statistically more in need of financial aid. To support this they produce an interesting document, the first method of which is to compare the financial needs of post-grad taught students who are under 30 with those who over 30, based on a survey of 4,000 UK domiciled PGT Masters. What this completely fails to account for is that all of the data has therefore been collected from people who have already made the decision to take on the financial burden of post-grad education. There are many people over thirty for whom this has simply not been an option. As the proposal itself sates “A 2014 survey of Universities UK members investigated the extent to which students applied for a Master’s course, tried and failed to secure funding and then went onto decline their place as a result. The study suggests that the costs of postgraduate study as being the main reason for why some students do not take up their place on a Master’s course.”
What is more likely, and what fits more snugly with the principle that “the proposed loan has been designed to ensure the majority of borrowers repay in full, while recognising the personal benefits that most will accrue”, is that this group of potential borrowers are more likely to pay back their loans in full. That is, according to predictions by the Department for Business Innovation & Skills, total repayments will be lower for those starting study later, because mature students are more likely to retire before their debt is repaid. In addition, although this is not part of the official conversation, it seems likely that a further aspect of this consideration is that women in the post-thirty category are more likely to do part-time or more low-paid work and will therefore pay off the loan at a much slower rate.
It is this kind of mercantile reasoning that lay behind David Willetts’ discredited suggestion that universities invest in the debt of their graduates, following his over-estimation of loan-repayment rates. Instead of recognising the failures of the system, Willetts proposed a solution that was inherently detrimental to students and the independence of universities as centres for education and research. Though his proposals were rejected, the implications behind these proposals are distressingly similar. The fear that Willetts’ model would lead to university admissions being determined by economic incentives to the exclusion of poorer students and women (who statistically have lower life time earnings) does not go away with post-grad loans. The idea that those worthy of investment are those who are likely to provide a better rate of return will affect the composition of the postgraduate student body to a similar extent, with the only difference being that this will be more indirect consequence of partial loans rather than the investment decisions of universities.
This is why we can totally disregard the given rationale that “The Government is intervening to stimulate the market and remove barriers to progression… It is targeted at providing support to those who face the greatest barriers to accessing finance.” The reasoning behind this is not to target provision at those most in need, but rather those who are most likely to provide a hasty return on their debt. While this goes someway to improving access to postgraduate education for some and therefore ‘stimulate the market’, it does very little to address the problem of inaccessibility for those really in need of financial support. All this does is perpetuate the problem of social exclusivity in all the professions which require post-graduate qualifications. This also means that academic staff will remain as white, male and middle class as usual.
Post-grad Research – “innovative” funding proposals or a bad joke?
The proposals for dealing with Postgrad research degrees are even more bizarre in their reasoning. These suggestions are far less concrete and come ahead of a review on how the government ‘can both broaden and strengthen support for postgraduate research students and excellent postgraduate research’.
One of the suggestions is that they seek out ways to support ‘innovative finance platforms’ such as crowd-funding. This seems like a bad joke. We’re talking about years of commitment to research, not a gap year tour. We’re talking about living costs, not ‘start-ups’. In the cases of some this will simply be a different way for those from a finically privileged background to siphon off the money they were going to get anyway so that their extended family can avoid inheritance tax. In other, cases such ideas represent a horrible move towards the interests and agendas of private business and away from public funding. This passing suggestion is ambiguous but it leaves a distinctly bitter taste in the mouth with hints of all the nonsense surrounding Cameron’s ‘Big society’.
Such gimmicky suggestions are a completely inadequate response to problems that have been created by the pursuit of marketisation. In a letter to HE institutions last year, Madeleine Atkins HEFCE chief executive, revealed that most teaching budgets would drop by 5.85 per cent in 2014-15 as a result of the unforeseen costs of student loans. So ironically, while students are paying more, teachers are getting paid less. Even more ironically as far as these proposals here are concerned, such cuts have attacked one of the most important options for post-grad financial support, postgraduate teaching contracts. Post-grad teachers in my own institution have calculated that in some cases, particularly where marking is unaccounted for, they are working for below minimum wage.
Another is the idea introducing income contingent loans of up to £25,000, with the caveat that there be a trade-off with public subsidy levels. This is an alarming notion that threatens the idea that students should be funded with non-repayable stipends rather than yet more debt. How anyone could go through a system of 9k fees, £10,000 PGT loans and then an additional debt of £25,000 and pay it back is unfathomable (unless they went on to become a Russell Group University VC, that is). In terms of immediate demands, if there are going to be post-graduate loans they should accessible to all, regardless of age, and without a pay-off in public funding. But really, if we address the problem at its root we need to interrupt this system of debt and demand free-education from the outset. We want living grants for postgraduates who need them, not more debt.
As in the case with the rationale for PGT loans, the proposals given in this document form part of a wider concern with market stimulation, rather than increasing access or reducing student poverty. One needs to only look back to the 2015 Budget (point 1.179), which proposes “to examine the balance between number and level of research stipends to ensure that the UK’s offer remains internationally competitive”, for evidence of this preoccupation. While this is not discussed in the consultation document, it forms part of one of the questions: “What is the impact of the availability and level of individual stipends?” (p.29). Specifically, the question of ‘availability’ versus ‘level’ seems to imply that in order to remain competitive there will necessarily be a trade-off between the number of studentships available and how much money they offer. Here the market trumps the nominal ‘concerns’ of the rationale for providing funding. If you want to improve access and welfare you provide more studentships at a level that provides for reasonable living costs, not support the appearance of numerous stipends that will in reality put your postgrads into poverty. Particularly when other policy decisions mean that they are also being used as a cheap labour force to teach those entering into the first stages of this seemingly never-ending cycle of debt.
Stop ignoring the problem. We need free education.
Obviously there are more dimensions to this to be considered, such as how this kind of thinking will have a knock-on effect for research funding and department specific grants. What is clear, though, is that the current terms of the discussion represent a patent attempt to tackle the emergent effects of the various assaults on higher education wrought by neo-liberal ‘reforms’, without acknowledging this as the cause and in a way that only appeases concerns with social mobility in a very restricted and liberal sense. It is our task, as free education activists, to see through this tactic and point to the real issue- that fees and debt result in a stagnating system that is beholden to private interests and in no way responsive to notions of public good. Rather than removing the barriers to education brought on by financial need, extending the scaffolding of student debt simply reinforces them.