A report by the Sutton Trust has found that students with postgraduate degrees are increasingly edging out other graduates from top graduate jobs in the UK. The head of the foundation, Sir Peter Lampl, fears this is reducing social mobility by pricing out poorer students who only have an undergraduate qualification. 

The number of those continuing study to postgraduate level has almost trebled in the past two decades, spurred by the fact that a postgraduate qualification can now boost an individual’s earning potential by £200,000 over a lifetime, the report finds.

Those with postgraduate degrees now represent 2.1 million workers, compared with 600,000 in the mid-1990s. The Sutton Trust, which is dedicated to improving social mobility through education, says that postgraduate degrees are increasingly expected, whereas in the past only an undergraduate degree was essential for certain top jobs. More and more job applicants are continuing in education to gain an edge over their competitors.

Research led by academics at the London School of Economics and the University of Surrey found that those with a postgraduate degree can increase their potential earnings by around £5,500 a year. Over a 40-year working life, this equates to £200,000. 

The situation is likely to be exacerbated by the recent hike in undergraduate tuition fees to a maximum of £9,000 per year, which may lead to even more students being wary of taking on the costs associated with postgraduate courses. The report said that students are now facing the financial burden of an extra £20,000 in fees and living expenses to pay for a postgraduate course. No government support system exists for postgraduate study. The Sutton Trust has called for a targeted, state-backed loan scheme to support applicants from poor and middle-income households.

Lampl said that postgraduate study is “increasingly becoming the preserve of better off students from home and abroad.” Those on low and middle incomes are being priced out of top jobs, he says, arguing that new targets should be introduced to make sure universities are providing a better representation of society. Lampl suggests that “we need to have a much more concerted effort by government, universities and the professions to ensure that postgraduate study is about stretching the brightest minds and not simply dipping into the deepest pockets.”

He added: “It is not easy for government at a time of public spending restraint to consider improved funding for access to postgraduate study. Yet few investments have the potential to create such significant economic gain.” Lampl argues that, while a better educated workforce is good for Britain, “it is essential that this should not come at the expense of widening inequalities of access to these professions.”

Data from the University of Cambridge shows that 66% of UK and EU students studying for an MPhil are self-funded, according to figures from 2008. The university offers some funding in the form of scholarships, while other students may be awarded grants from charities. The annual fees for most MPhil courses are priced variably between around £4,000 and £5,000 for Home/EU students in the 2013-2014 entry period.

Last month, a college at the University of Oxford was accused of selecting its postgraduate students by wealth, after asking applicants to demonstrate that they had access to around £21,000 upfront to cover fees and living costs. Cambridge’s literature on postgraduate admissions makes clear that it is only on the condition of “immediate access to a large amount of liquid capital” that offer holders will be allowed to take up their places.

The number of wealthy overseas students coming to the UK for postgraduate study has been on the rise for some time and the proportion of foreign students currently accounts for around half of all postgraduates at some universities, according to Peter Lampl. Among research students, the number of international students has grown twice as fast as UK students and overall the UK has one of the lowest progression rates to master’s studies of any European country, at less than 10%.

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