As a third-year student, doing an open-ended degree, the question I dread most at the moment is: “What do you want to do with your life?” Having lunch with my girlfriend’s family last weekend, this was the question I was asked more than any other (except, perhaps “can you pass the wine?”). In amongst my stuttered answers – “journalism this” and “fast stream that” – I realised that I couldn’t be truthful. I would love to do a master’s degree, but at this rate, there is not a chance I can afford it.
As it stands, master’s degrees sit in an awkward position. Undergraduate degrees drive you into mountains of debt, but for the most part, the maintenance loan and a part-time job makes them just about liveable. PhDs – well, there’s not the same reputation for accruing debt, but you might get paid just enough to live on as a Graduate Teaching Assistant.
I’m not saying these are ideal, or even acceptable situations, but they do avoid the bizarre limbo a master’s student is thrown into.
If you don’t know the basic funding arrangements, I’ll break it down. Undergraduate degrees have separate tuition loans and means-tested maintenance loans. But for masters’ degrees, the government gives you just the one loan, to use as you see fit.
In theory – if not at all in practice – this is meant to cover, if you’ve got no other income stream, your tuition and your living expenses. Bear in mind that tuition fees for masters’ are not capped, unlike an undergraduate degree, at £9,250. Instead, tuition fees for masters’ average £11,000. Let’s not even broach the subject of the non-refundable deposit of thousands of pounds.
So, guess how much the government gives you. £12,000. Twelve thousand pounds. If I did an English Literature masters’ at the University of Oxford (I know, wishful thinking), where Masters’ degrees will cost £15,000 by the time our cohort gets round to it, I’d be three grand in my overdraft before I’d finished paying fees, and another 12 big ones out to SfE. Forget rent, bills, or eating, or – I don’t know, enjoying myself ever?
There are, of course, other alternatives. The University of Manchester offers a £3,000 reduction in fees to Humanities alumni who achieve a First. How generous. That would leave me with not even enough of my government loan left to pay rent. Other universities also offer similar schemes. But, crucially, they don’t offer enough money off or to enough people.
And there are scholarships. A few, to go around. For international students, there’s the Chevening Scholarship, designed “to support Britain’s public diplomacy overseas.” It is immensely competitive, and hardly an answer to the systemic problems with funding masters.
There are others, which are often specific to institutions. For example, the University of Manchester’s “Manchester Master’s Bursary” this year offers 100 bursaries of £4000 per student, and aims to help students “from underrepresented groups access postgraduate education.”
It’s a noble initiative – but its very existence proves the point I am making. The barriers to a master’s degree should absolutely not be financial. Just because you made it more affordable for 100 people doesn’t make it affordable or accessible for many other thousands.
I suppose you could get a job. Full-time, as that’s the only way you will be able to afford it. I met someone last summer who worked 30-40 hour weeks, finished at 7 in the evening, and headed off to the Ali G for another “day” of work. But that’s no way to live. Being forced to do that for a year is going to destroy you, socially, spiritually and academically.
And, of course, there is the part-time option. But the whole allure of a master’s degree is that you can dedicate yourself to your subject in its entirety. And lots of courses, often the most traditionally prestigious, simply don’t offer this option.
Who then can afford to do a master’s degree with all this funding? Those brilliant enough to get a good scholarship, those willing to work themselves into the ground and then six feet further, and those who went to private schools and are lucky enough to have big purses within their family.
For the rest of us? Not a chance. The road, academically, stops here.
I know what you’re thinking. “Entitled Humanities student wants more free stuff, paid for by the hard-working taxpayer” reads the imaginary headline ghostwritten by Margaret Thatcher’s corpse in the Telegraph. And to that, I say: you’re right. Ideologically, it is surely obvious that education, even at the highest level, should not be a financial privilege. Learning shouldn’t be a financial burden, at any level.
Pragmatically, it is clear that graduates are valuable assets to a country. If the country’s leading figures weren’t quite so plagued by short-termism, perhaps they’d be able to see that.
So – fund masters’ degrees properly. Give money, lend money, whatever – just make it enough money for students to live on, and to make the most of it. Scrap tuition fees, and reap the benefits of doing so. Put joy back in education, and make that joy for anyone who wants it.