Growing up in Redcar on the north-east coast of Yorkshire, Kerry-Anne Revie, who is from a low-income background, thought that “people like me don’t belong at Oxford”. The elite university wants to change this perception: in July 2019 it launched UNIQ+ – a summer school designed to widen minority groups’ access to postgraduate education, such as those who have been in care or received free school meals.
Revie spent six weeks at Oxford’s biochemistry department, assisting an academic’s research into DNA transcription. The 22-year-old is doing an integrated master’s in biological sciences at University of Leeds, and says UNIQ+ put her on a par with peers who could afford to do voluntary work.
It’s one of a flurry of recent schemes, from mentoring to financial aid, designed to boost postgrad diversity in response to concerns that undergrad debt is deterring people from staying on at university. A 2016 study found that 2.4% of white students had started a PhD within five years of graduating, compared with just 1.3% of black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) students. A key factor is the financial barrier: only 1.2% of PhD studentships from UK Research and Innovation research councils have been awarded to black or black-mixed students in the past three years.
Prof Paul Wakeling at the University of York’s department of education says universities “focused on the bottom line” by prioritising the recruitment of a more diverse range of undergrad students rather than postgrads – a move driven in part by financial necessity. In order to charge the max £9,250 undergrad fees, a university’s fair access plan must be approved by the Office for Students, but only for undergrad degrees and postgrad initial teacher training, because there is no cap on postgrad tuition fees, other than for initial teacher training.
“We need more regulatory oomph,” says Wakeling.
For its part, the government introduced loans of up to £25,000 (now £25,700) for doctoral students in 2018/19, and in 2016/17 loans for master’s degrees worth £10,000 (now £10,906) were launched. The latter widened access to postgrad study: enrolment on loan-eligible master’s courses increased by 74% among black students, and by 59% among those from low undergrad participation areas – a proxy for disadvantage – between 2015/16 and 2016/17. Both groups had previously cited finance as a major barrier to a postgrad degree.
But the loans could “subsidise the wealthy” as they are not based on students’ financial need, says Wakeling – you can get one no matter how much money you have in the bank. And they rarely cover all tuition and living costs, which can be up to £30,000 a year in London, says Catherine Baldwin, director of recruitment and admissions at London School of Economics.
LSE fills this gap in finance by awarding more than £13m of scholarships annually, including needs-based awards such as the Graduate Support Scheme, worth between £5,000 and £15,000. Baldwin says this helps LSE attract a broad range of nationalities, as well as students from across the UK, not just south-east England.
However, Ginevra House, a freelance researcher at the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), says that recent gains made in fair access will be “eroded” if tuition fees continue to increase: “People will rely on part-time work or bank loans that add more debt to make ends meet.”
Since the introduction of master’s loans, universities have been hiking postgrad tuition fees to cover the cost of running courses; research programmes overall make a substantial loss, she says.
Revie is searching for funding to potentially do a PhD in immunology at Oxford, but she remains undecided. While she was on the UNIQ+ scheme last year, university admissions staff pointed out sources of funding and shared potential admissions interview questions so she could prepare. Oxford will also waive her £75 application fee.
In addition, UNIQ+ pays a £2,500 stipend, and Oxford put Revie up in halls in Jericho, an Oxford city suburb. Some students in the halls were “snobby” she says. When she complained that bars shut relatively early at the weekend, one quipped: “That’s because everyone works harder in Oxford and does better.”
But the experience has not deterred her from staying on and indeed, most UNIQ+ students are considering a postgrad at Oxford or another Russell Group university, says Nadia Pollini, director of graduate admissions. She adds: “We were amazed by the response – in four weeks we had 200 applications for 33 places. There’s a real need for this. We are looking to expand it.”