A debate about postgraduate funding in the House of Commons last week raised concerns about the lack of means-tested scholarships, but at the same time MPs expressed hesitation about any form of Government-funded loan scheme for postgrads.
The debate in parliament was organised in racetin to the case of Damien Shannon, the postgraduate applicant who is suing St Hugh’s College for “selecting by wealth”. MPs discussed various issues surrounding the financial requirements placed on students applying fo graduate courses, as well as the specific funding demands made by Oxford University.
In a specially-convened adjournment debate held in Parliament last Wednesday, Shannon’s MP Hazel Blears spoke at length about the case, as well as the general “growing importance of postgraduate education for individuals, the economy and social mobility.”
She told fellow MPs: “Oxford University’s demands for a guarantee on living costs are deeply unfair – they will price gifted students out of doing these courses and our country will lose out on some really talented individuals.
“It is ludicrous that any student deemed to be of sufficient academic merit to attend one of the world’s best universities is considered incapable of budgeting to ensure they have enough money to live on.”
She added: “I also believe that it is for universities to support people in these circumstances. I have made inquiries at Oxford and at other universities. Of all the scholarships that are available, none are means-tested, so they are not available or targeted at people from poorer backgrounds. That needs to change.”
David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, echoed Blears’ comments on the increased requirements for postgraduate education in the UK, saying: “Postgraduate education is becoming far more important. There is an increasing range of jobs for which a postgraduate qualification is expected.”
Referring to the financial support provided by bodies such as the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Willetts stressed the importance of continuing investment in postgraduate education.
He added: “We must not erect a new barrier to the spread of opportunity.”
However, responding to calls by some organisations, including the NUS, for the establishment of a postgraduate loan scheme similar to that already in place for undergraduates, Willetts conceded that there were “risks” involved.
He said: “The biggest single risk is that as soon as we [have] a general public expenditure programme or loans scheme, the Treasury would immediately become interested in how many people were eligible, controlling postgraduate numbers and setting new conditions. It would be a great pity if this open and diverse sector found itself with a highly regulated loan scheme that constrained its growth.
“I do not accept and have not been persuaded at this stage that a Government-funded loan scheme is the answer, but I am happy to consider that proposal and others if people make them.”
Blears has sent letters to Willetts, Michael Gove and Nick Clegg urging them to put pressure on the University and to look at all possible ways of outlawing this specific financial requirement. She is set to back Shannon’s legal claim at the first hearing on February 15th.
Meanwhile, officials at Oxford have also responded to the outcry caused by Shannon’s case. A spokesperson for the University spoke at length to The Oxford Student about the University’s position on postgraduate student funding and the financial guarantee policy: “Oxford has been proactive in highlighting this national issue and works very hard to provide more financial support – both by fundraising for scholarships and by lobbying for a national loans scheme. Oxford offers more postgraduate financial support than almost any other UK university, but even here finance is still a challenge.”
The University stipulates that students admitted for postgraduate study possess at least £12,900 to cover living costs, a figure set according to the results of a yearly survey of domestic bursars in every college.
Responding to claims that this figure was an overestimation, the spokespe son pointed out that it is in fact lower than the minimum living costs stipend provided by the UK Research Councils, which currently stands at £13,590.
They added: “Postgraduate courses at Oxford are very demanding and time-consuming, so do not allow for significant earning while on the course. We do not want students to be misled into thinking they will have significant time to earn money and to then be at a disadvantage while on the course, or be unable to complete it.
“While projected earnings during the course are not taken into account, projected earnings before the start of the course are taken into account.”
Brendan Callaghan, Master of Campion Hall, one of the University’s Permanent Private Halls, expressed his support for the current postgraduate admissions policy: “If someone is going to commit themselves to what is an expensive investment in terms of personal finances and time, then it is appropriate that they can demonstrate that they have the financial resources as well as the personal and intellectual resources.”
He continued: “No-one questions the appropriateness of the University assessing the personal and intellectual resources available – I think the financial guarantees need to be seen as a parallel to this.”
Joseph Bricker, a postgrad at St Hugh’s, commented: “It seems perfectly legal and reasonable to demand that students don’t go destitute during their degrees, but one of the bigger problems is the gutting of funding for graduate students in the humanities.
“No qualified student should be turned away for not meeting a financial guarantee.”