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Postgraduate loans promised in Autumn Statement

First official pledge of government-backed loans for entire postgraduate system.

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George Osborne’s Autumn Statement, read in the House of Commons today, contained the first pledge by the Treasury to back student loans for postgraduate students studying at UK universities “across all disciplines”. The loans will be paid back “concurrent with undergraduate loans” and operate under the same or similar system to current student loan arrangements for undergraduates who entered Higher Education after 2012.

The measures, though anticipated by some university leaders in the preceding months, were received as significant news by many students, academics and several Higher Education commentators. Mark M. Leach, director of the HE policy discussion forum WonkHE, described the planned changes as “massive”. University and College Union general secretary Sally Hunt has said in response to the government’s plans, “It’s positive that the government has moved to address the current crisis in postgraduate funding, but encouraging people to accrue more debt is not the best way to attract the best and brightest into further study.”

Student loans had previously been limited to undergraduate courses and some postgraduate qualifications such as teacher training diplomas (PGCEs) and were typically unavailable for Master’s degrees or other one-year courses. The funding for postgraduate loans will prevent students from having to pay for courses up-front or by taking out private sector loans from banks or other private lenders. The Co-Operative Group’s Career Development Loan is currently one of the most popular avenues of funding for postgraduate students who lack sufficient funding from universities or external funding bodies.

In Osborne’s full speech to Parliament, he referred to the abolition of the official cap on university places in the 2013 Autumn Statement before outlining plans for the new postgraduate loans system:

“A year ago, I abolished the arbitrary cap on the total number of undergraduates at our universities. Today, I am going to revolutionise the support for our post-graduate students too.

Until now there has been almost no financial support available, and the upfront costs of postgraduate degrees deters bright students from poorer backgrounds.

So today, across all disciplines, we will make government-backed student loans of up to £10,000 available, for the first time ever, to all young people undertaking post-grad masters degrees.”

The funding will, however, consist of “income contingent loans for those under 30 years old” and no change in policy has been announced for prospective master’s students over the age of 30, typically classed as ‘Mature Students’. There remain several ‘areas of uncertainty’ in the plans for the new funding arrangements, upon which the Government has stated it “will consult on the details and will then confirm the delivery plan.”

Before the Autumn Statement was read, the Higher Education Policy Institute posted three questions in anticipation of the announcement, predicting that whilst the plans “would tackle some access problems by making finance less of a barrier. It’s not clear if George Osborne will announce a fully worked-out scheme or (probably more likely) promise to consult on the details.”.

The full 2014 Autumn Statement can be downloaded and read here.