When undergraduate tuition fees were announced in 2010, many people worried that fees would put off those from poorer backgrounds from going to university. For those already at university and thinking about graduate study, fees have been a reality for years. What many people haven’t noticed, however, is the very rapid rise in the cost of postgrad courses: fees have increased by an average of 31.8 per cent between 2003-04 and 2008-09, from £3,232 to just over £4,261, well above inflation.
Students from poorer backgrounds are under-represented in postgraduate study, something many policymakers worry about. So have rising fees put off poorer students from further study? Yes, according to new research soon to be published by SERC.
The findings, which I presented at the Royal Economic Society Annual Conference last month, draw on a rich new dataset of postgraduate tuition fees by institution, subject and time. Using micro-data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), I find that a rise in postgraduate fees of 10 per cent leads to a reduction in the probability of students progressing directly on to a postgraduate degree of between 1.7 per cent and 4.5 per cent.
Moves to postgrad study are heavily weighted towards students from higher socio-economic backgrounds. Students from managerial or professional backgrounds, for example, account for 60 per cent of those progressing, while students from the lowest socio-economic groups - routine occupations, never worked and long-term unemployed – account for no more than 4 per cent.
Even after controlling for a wide range of other characteristics, students from poorer backgrounds remain significantly less likely to progress than their wealthier peers. Notably, attendance at a private school prior to university significantly increases the likelihood of progression by between 0.9 per cent and 2.4 per cent.
It's interesting that students from non-white backgrounds were also significantly more likely to remain in higher education: Black and Asian students are 5.5-6.6 per cent and 5.2-6.8 per cent more likely respectively to progress to a further degree than equivalent white students.
Not surprisingly, I find that first degree results make a big difference, with those earning firsts or 2:1s over 10% more likely to do further study than those with 2:2s or below. Men are also about 3 per cent more likely than women to stay on.
The research makes the case for several important policy changes. Firstly, a systematic effort is needed to monitor all postgraduate tuition fees in the UK. The absence of a database of fees by subject, institution and qualification level has presented a significant barrier for research and is an essential pre-requisite for efforts to effectively monitor access above undergraduate level.
Secondly, there is a need to re-examine how public support for postgraduate study is allocated. The results suggest that students from poorer backgrounds are under-represented in postgraduate study and that the jump from undergraduate to postgraduate study presents an additional barrier. Policy makers should reconsider the funding arrangements for postgraduate study – and in particular, the extent of public support for students from low income backgrounds who aspire to study beyond undergraduate level.