The Labour MP met with OUSU’s VP for Graduates Chris Gray to discuss postgraduate funding at the University. Nicola Blackwood, Conservative MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, has also expressed interest in the campaign and is due to meet with OUSU.
The NUS campaign aims to unite Student Unions, MPs and university Vice-Chancellors to push the government to reconsider its current policy on postgraduate funding. MPs who sign up to the campaign are pledging to represent the interests of postgraduate students in their constituency, raise the issue with their party, and support an Early Day Motion for a debate on postgraduate funding in Parliament.
The ‘Postgraduate Champion’ campaign follows an NUS report from November 2012 which proposed a government-backed loan scheme for taught postgraduate students.
A recent survey of those Masters applicants who did not take up their places at Oxford found that 47 per cent would have been interested in a loan if a scheme were available.
The report, entitled ‘Steps toward a fairer system of postgraduate taught funding’, argues that access to postgraduate study is unfair as it based upon the ability to pay for it. It states that many students are denied the opportunity to study a postgraduate qualification because they cannot afford the costs up front. It also notes that funding shortages for postgraduates could impact upon the UK’s research excellence and thus the country’s ability to compete globally.
The NUS’ report follows similar reports by Alan Milburn, the Independent Reviewer on Social Mobility and Child Poverty, the Higher Education Commission & the Higher Education Academy.
Andrew Smith MP commented that: “The wellbeing of students in Oxford has always been important to me and it is because of this that I am proud to be a ‘Postgraduate Champion’.”
He continued: “The current situation in postgraduate funding cannot be ignored any longer as many young people are already being excluded from study simply because of their wealth. It is crucial that everyone, regardless of means is enabled to make the most of their potential. We also desperately need to enhance our skills and knowledge base if we are to compete in the global economy.”
Christopher Gray, VP for Graduates at OUSU, expressed gratitude for Smith’s support on postgraduate funding, hoping that “along with other MPs, he can help raise the issue in Westminster.”
He noted OUSU’s work with the University itself, saying that they have been “encouraging the Vice-Chancellor to lobby alongside us, particularly in our call for loans for Masters students, and we are optimistic that he will soon begin to do so.”
Gray added that: “We look forward to meeting Nicola Blackwood MP in the near future and hope that she too will join the campaign.”
However, a DPhil in English at St John’s, who wished to remain anonymous, questioned whether a loan system would be appropriate. “If anything, it does – in a sense – put a student under more pressure, because institutions will know that loans are available and so the financial pressures on graduate students will be downplayed: the cost will be abstract – to be paid off at some distant point in the future – rather than painfully overt (as it needs to be, for the sake of any student contemplating postgraduate study, who deserves an honest representation of the financial risk they take).”
This issue of postgraduate funding recently hit the press after Damien Shannon sued St Hugh’s College in February after he was refused a place because he failed to prove that he could cover the stipulated £12,900 budget for living costs. In court he claimed that the College’s ruling contravened the Human Rights Act. The dispute was resolved in March and Shannon was offered a place to study an MSc in Economic and Social History.
Shannon and St Hugh’s offered a joint statement saying that they advocated a review of the University’s financial guarantee policy, which is anticipated to be completed in September 2013. They said that: “On completion of the review, recommendations will be put to the University’s Council and the Conference of Colleges for consideration.”
The University currently has a range of scholarships available, including the new Oxford Graduate Scholarships, which is a £100 million fundraising initiative for which all eligible postgraduate students will automatically be considered from 2013/14.