Universities urge government to remove financial barriers to postgraduate study for disadvantaged students

  • Six Russell Group universities launch report in the House of Commons
  • Consortium makes recommendations to government to widen access to higher education and the top professions

The University of Sheffield today (Monday 26 October 2015) launched a report in the House of Commons urging the government to ensure proposed changes to postgraduate loans don’t stop talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds accessing higher education and the top professions.


The University, which led a consortium of six Russell Group institutions in the largest pilot postgraduate support scheme funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), made a raft of recommendations to policymakers to make sure finance isn’t a barrier to postgraduate study for students from under-represented groups.

In last year’s Autumn Statement, Chancellor George Osborne announced new postgraduate loans worth up to £10,000 from 2016-17 – but they will only be available to people aged 30 and under.

The Postgraduate Support Scheme (PSS), by the Universities of Sheffield, Leeds, York, Warwick, Manchester and Newcastle, tested whether a lack of access to funding was a barrier to Postgraduate Taught Study (PGT) and the universities awarded 416 scholarships of typically £10,000 based on widening participation (WP) criteria.

They found that one in five applicants was over 30 and people who were over that age were more likely than younger students to have WP characteristics such as a disability, a background in the care system or caring responsibilities which had prevented them from progressing to postgraduate study sooner.

A report, Widening Access to Postgraduate Study and Fair Access to the Professions, was presented at the House of Commons event, hosted by Paul Blomfield, Labour MP for Sheffield Central, and Chris White, Conservative MP for Warwick and Leamington – both members of the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee.

Following the pilot scheme, the consortium is making the following recommendations to the government:

  • If the age limit of 30 remains a qualifying criteria for proposed postgraduate loans, it should be waived for those postgraduate students who meet WP criteria where their circumstances have prevented earlier progression.
  • If access to state-backed income contingent loans is extended to postgraduates as proposed, they should be available to returners who meet WP criteria and not only be for graduates who paid the higher £9,000 per year fees.
  • Targeted scholarships should be made available alongside or instead of loans for postgraduate applicants who meet WP criteria, have existing undergraduate debt and no access to personal or family funding to support their continuing study.
  • The postgraduate support offer made to applicants who meet WP criteria should be clear, simple and accessible to encourage progression.

Dr Tony Strike, Consortium Leader and Director of Strategy, Planning and Change at the University of Sheffield, said: "Postgraduate loans will remove a financial barrier to educational opportunity if those who meet widening participation criteria are exempt from the proposed age 30 cap and targeted scholarships should be available to those who have existing debt and no access to personal or family resources."

PSS scholarships awarded to postgraduate students through the pilot scheme last year enabled many to study a Masters when they would have otherwise been unable to do so.

A group of them joined politicians and university leaders in the House of Commons to share their experiences.

Robert Hardie, whose father lost his job as a mine manager when he was 11, said he would still be working in a warehouse if he had not had access to funding to study a MSc in Environmental Change and International Development at the University of Sheffield.

He has now started a PhD studentship and hopes to influence global climate change policy.

Scott Walker, who studied an MSc in Advanced Mechanical Engineering at the University of Warwick, said he never thought he’d be able to do a Masters because he was from a lower-income family.

He said: “The scholarship scheme meant I was able to secure job interviews with the likes of Aston Martin, the McLaren Formula 1 Racing Team and Jaguar Land Rover, from which I secured two formal job offers. I decided to choose to work for Jaguar Land Rover and have been working for promotion ever since.”

Peter Donald left high school in 2003 and spent five years working in retail as a Team Manager before deciding to return to education.

After studying an access course and an LLB at the University of Manchester, he was awarded a scholarship to study an LLM in International Business and Commercial Law.

He said: “Receiving the scholarship has allowed me to fulfil my ambition and achieve my goal of obtaining a Masters qualification. If you had asked me in 2003 if I believed I would ever return to education I would have answered with an assertive ‘no’. In December 2015 I will be graduating with my Masters qualification.”

University of Sheffield Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Keith Burnett, who was part of the UK Government’s 2010 review into postgraduate education, which recommended increased funding in this area, was at the event:

He said: “Ensuring that talented students from all backgrounds have access to postgraduate education is not only life-changing for those individuals, it is vitally important for the UK.

“Postgraduate study is often the gateway to professions such as medicine, teaching and law. It would be a very poor society which had people in such key positions of care and influence from only one background – we need to ensure that our country benefits from ability right across the board, and that means we need to help overcome barriers of funding.

“The University of Sheffield was founded by people determined to ensure access to the highest quality education by those with the talent to take advantage of it, regardless of background, and I am very proud that the same spirit is still thriving here today.”

For more information about PSS, visit www.postgradsupport.co.uk

For a copy of the report click here.

Additional information

The University of Sheffield

With almost 26,000 of the brightest students from around 120 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.

A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

In 2014 it was voted number one university in the UK for Student Satisfaction by Times Higher Education and in the last decade has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes in recognition of the outstanding contribution to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life.

Sheffield has five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.

Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline, Siemens and Airbus, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.


For further information please contact:

Hannah Postles
Media Relations Officer
University of Sheffield
0114 222 1046