Luke MacGregor reflects upon what the pandemic has meant for working class students in postgraduate education.
The many failures and shortcomings of the Government's response to the coronavirus pandemic are well documented and well known to anyone likely to read this article. However, these failings, when coupled with an already unfair and regressive system of funding for potential masters students, leave a situation where students from low to middle-income families are being priced out of the ability to gain a postgraduate education.
Many masters courses have tuition fees above £9,500, that which a home student would have to pay in England, typically in the £10,000-12,000 range. However, the maximum loan you can get from Student Finance was for this academic year roughly £11,300, which is to pay for your tuition fees, living and housing costs. This leaves many masters students with a meagre £300 over three instalments leftover after their tuition payments to live and pay rent. Moreover, unlike PhD funding, there is very little in the way of bursaries and research grants available. The typical solution if you come from a background where your family can’t or won’t help make up the difference? Get a part-time job.
This past year it’s been a bit different. Most students rely on jobs in industries that have faced the brunt of restrictions such as jobs in bars, restaurants, cafes and retail, to make up this gap. Consequently, potential master students lucky enough to already be in work end up being paid less on furlough or generally speaking as part-time newer members of staff they are most likely to lose their jobs or have their hours cut. This is to say nothing if someone doing a masters had to move from their previous university or home to a new place in this past year and hadn’t been able to find a job since then. The legacy of these restrictions will also be with us for some time as unemployment in the under 30s is likely to rise and recover slowly after the pandemic. There are pandemic proof alternatives, of course, but they are not solutions for everyone: not everyone has the fitness or feel secure enough to be a delivery driver; not everyone has the temperament to be a tutor; others either are or live with someone who has to shield. To compound matters further, students in almost all circumstances are not entitled to claim benefits such as unemployment support.
There are many reasons someone might want to go on to do a masters: they love their subject and want to find out more about it; they want to become a researcher in that field or they may want to change their field altogether. Since the abolishment of maintenance grants for university students, students from the families least able to pay have to incur the most debt that will hang around their neck when they leave university. The repayments currently start for a masters loan at a lower amount than an undergraduate loan, essentially making an even larger income tax bill that postgraduates will have to pay when they do find a job that provides them with a salary large enough to trigger loan repayments.
Basic mathematics indicates that if you have nothing coming in, eventually with money coming out due to food costs and rent, you’ll find yourself in the negative. Some, like myself, might have been lucky in their timing and had been able to work for a time before the pandemic hit, able to accrue some savings only to watch it slowly erode away as the year goes by. However, life is chaotic and messy and not every recent graduate who starts out with that intention finds the transition back to uni life, indeed if they had the option to transition back at all.
These issues lead to one obvious but unfortunate result. Many potential masters students this year and next have looked at the scene I’ve described before you, and decided through absolutely no fault of their own they can’t afford to do the thing they enjoy doing or have planned their lives around. We accept that is good on an individual and societal level that tertiary education shouldn’t be left only to those who can pay for it, so why not masters courses? The solutions are easy, obvious, morally right, and in the scheme of government spending are a drop in the ocean, and tie in with the Government's aims of levelling up and increasing scientific research.
Luke is the Social media officer for the UoM YF and the Bi/Pan Rep for the YF LGBTQIA+ Network and is studying a Masters in Precision Medicine.