The benefits associated with postgraduate qualifications are becoming increasingly clear. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) statistics show that those with higher degrees have an income advantage over their first-degree-only compatriots in each country providing data. Research commissioned by the Sutton Trust suggests that in Britain, people with a postgraduate qualification can expect to earn on average 14 per cent more than those with an undergraduate degree alone. Postgraduate degree holders are more likely to be employed and to be using skills acquired in their education for their work.
The recent sharp rise in undergraduate fees has focused attention on barriers to postgraduate progression, as mounting student debts could deter potential postgraduates. These concerns lie behind the introduction of master’s loans of up to £10,000 in England for 2016/17. With more than 50,000 such loans disbursed, perhaps up-front cost rather than fear of debt is the bigger obstacle.
About three quarters of UK master’s students are self-funding, often relying on family financial support. Little wonder, then, that those from low-income backgrounds are the most likely to want to pursue postgraduate study, but the least likely to do so. Nor that there are inequalities in access by social class background, among other factors.
The first stage in postgraduate enrolment is to apply for a place. Many who do so will face an expensive surprise: postgraduate application fees. The principle of paying a fee for an application service will be familiar to those who apply for an undergraduate place in the UK via Ucas, which charges £24 for up to five applications. But the level of and variation in postgraduate fees will come as a shock.
Many institutions, including those that use Ucas postgraduate application service UKPASS, charge nothing. Others charge substantially more than the £5 per application an undergraduate would effectively pay.
In fact, among those universities in the Russell Group charging a postgraduate application fee, all charge more for a single application than Ucas charges for five (see the table below). Applying to the universities of Cambridge or Warwick will set you back £50 a time; it’s £65 to apply to the London School of Economics and no less than £75 at the University of Oxford and University College London.
To put this in perspective, applying to Cambridge, LSE, Oxford, UCL and Warwick would cost £315, at an average of £63 per application. This is more than 13 times that of an application made to study as an undergraduate through Ucas. That £315 would be spent with no guarantee of success either.
For a 21-year-old on the minimum wage, £315 exce the earnings from a full-time working week (assuming no deductions). But even a £50 fee is a big ask for someone struggling to get by and without the option of parental subsidy.
It is unclear why exactly some institutions charge a fee while other institutions do not. No doubt there are administrative costs to application processing and a keenness to minimise “timewaster” applications. But these costs are not limited to the set of universities charging fees (some of whom also charge high postgraduate tuition fees too).
It’s also surprising that some institutions that have been leading the way in widening postgraduate participation are within the fee-charging group. If access to postgraduate study is going to be prioritised, then fee-charging institutions need to consider potential barriers in the whole of their application process, especially for those from low-income or traditionally under-represented backgrounds.
Joshua Stubbs recently graduated from the University of York and will commence a master’s degree at the University of Oxford this autumn. Paul Wakeling is professor in the Department of Education, University of York. Both write in a personal capacity.