Scotland needs more home grown postgraduates

Scotland is not producing enough home-grown taught postgraduate students

A better system of student support is needed to encourage Scots to study masters qualifications.

The number of Scots students studying masters degrees and other postgraduate taught qualifications has been falling as other countries see a big expansion in post graduate level education.

Scottish students now make up only 46 per cent of all those studying at postgraduate taught level compared to 62 per cent less than ten years ago.

Unless we can reverse this decline Scotland will be left without the high-level skills that employers and the economy needs to be competitive. Scotland risks falling behind in what is a global economic competition for high level skills.

Universities Scotland has been working with the Scottish Government in a short-life work group on this issue since late 2014. The group reported in December 2015 and made a number of recommendations around loan support, clarity and ease of access to information on postgraduate level study and a focus on ensuring representation of students of all backgrounds at postgraduate level. A link to the full report can be found below.

Key Points

  • Few Scots are studying post graduate taught qualifications.
  • Scots now make up only 46 per cent of all students studying masters qualifications in Scotland compared to 62 per cent less than a decade ago.
  • Scotland has been sliding in the wrong direction when it comes to masters qualifications.
  • Postgrads typically earn more than £5,500 a year more than undergraduates.
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The problem

The number of students studying at post graduate taught level in Scotland’s universities has increased by 39 per cent over the last ten years to 2014/15. This is positive but it masks the fact that the number of Scottish-domiciled students studying at masters level has not mirrored that trend. Scottish numbers studying postgrad taught qualifications dropped by two per cent over that same period.

Postgraduate taught qualifications start at around £4,000 for Scottish-domiciled students. At the moment very few postgraduate students qualify for loan support to help cover the cost of living whilst studying. Private finance is the only means open to students wanting to take up masters level study.

A study at the University of Derby into perceptions of postgraduate study found funding issues to be a key part of the early decision-making process.

There is a lack of clear information on options for funding support and loans at postgraduate level. This makes it complicated and confusing to potential applicants.

A lot of attention has been given to the issue of widening access to university but this has all been focused on undergraduate degrees. It’s believed that this is an even greater problem at postgraduate level. This has been described as “the real time bomb in terms of social mobility”.[1] Nine per cent of Scottish PGT students are from the 20 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods in Scotland (SIMD20) compared with 14 per cent at undergraduate level.

The data point to concerns amongst gender balance. Whilst women form the majority of undergraduate students, they become a minority in postgraduate taught study.

Scotland should be in a good position when it comes to encouraging postgraduate study. Free higher education for Scots at undergraduate level students means lower levels of average debt than their peers in the rest of the UK.

Scotland is increasingly reliant on international students for postgraduate level skills. However current UK immigration policy means that very few international students are granted a visa to remain and work in the UK. At the moment Scotland is training, but losing, a large pool of talent.

[1] Alan Milburn.


Business demand

Businesses like postgraduate taught qualifications as they offer highly focused knowledge and expertise at a high-skill level.

Scotland’s energy, tourism and food and drink sectors all identified the need for more postgraduates to meet the needs of business.

At a UK level there are current shortages at this level in electronics, medical statistics, pharmaceuticals and toxicology, isotope chemistry and high-value manufacturing.

Postgraduate level skills are required by employers for an ever-growing number of roles including quantitative roles in investment banking, engineering, teaching, clinical science and geoscience.

Postgraduate skills are linked to the attraction and retention of inward investment and are believed to be a major lever for improving productivity. Investment in higher level skills can provide significant returns to the individual, to companies and to the economy as a whole.[2]

[2] Leitch review.

Trends in other European countries

Europe and America are growing the number of students that study to postgraduate level. As Scotland slips in the opposite direction, with the global market place for skills becoming ever more competitive, there is a risk that Scotland is left behind.

President Obama captured the challenge when he said:

 “We know America can’t out-compete the world tomorrow if our children are being out-educated today”

The solution

Scotland would benefit from a new system of funding for postgraduate taught education. We propose a new system of fees loans to provide a fairer opportunity for postgraduate taught students of all different backgrounds and modes of study.

Scotland needs a system of support for postgraduates in place that equals or betters the new policy of £10,000 of loan support in England announced last year.

Support for postgraduates should be transferrable across the UK so that Scots can study in England and students living in England can study in Scotland if that is the best option for them.

Any new policy needs to take into account that more than half of Scottish postgraduates are “mature” learners over 30 years of age.

Additional incentives should be considered to encourage students from underrepresented backgrounds to study at postgraduate level.

It would also be helpful to determine clear guidance around what constitutes widening access or underrepresented at postgraduate level as this is far more difficult to do than for undergraduate applications.


Further reading

The final report of the working group which led the Taught Postgraduate Review was published in December 2015.

The Scottish Government is considering the report’s recommendations.

The Scottish Government’s short-life working group was chaired by Professor Bryan MacGregor, Vice Principal at the University of Aberdeen. Representatives from Scotland’s universities, the Scottish Funding Council, the Student Awards Agency Scotland, NUS Scotland and staff unions sit on the group.

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