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Rising fees deterring students from poorer backgrounds from continuing on to postgraduate study

Students from poorer backgrounds are under-represented in postgraduate study and high tuition fees, which have risen by an average of 31 per cent between 2003-04 and 2009-10, are deterring many from making the jump from undergraduate to graduate courses.

These are among the findings of a report by Philip Wales, a PhD student at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), presented at the Royal Economic Society conference this week.

In order to examine progression rates from undergraduate to postgraduate study[1], Philip Wales obtained data from over 150 universities in the UK to develop the first substantial dataset of postgraduate fees by subject and university in the UK. Student level data has been taken from the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education dataset provided by HESA.

He found that postgraduate fees have increased by an average of 31.8 per cent between 2003-04 and 2008-09, from £3,232 to just over £4,261. This largely unreported increase is substantially above the rate of inflation.

The study finds that a rise in postgraduate fees of 10 per cent lead to a reduction in the probability of students progressing directly on to a postgraduate degree of between 1.7 per cent and 4.5 per cent. Furthermore, progression is shown to be heavily weighted in favour of students from higher socio-economic backgrounds. Students from managerial or professional backgrounds, for example, account for 60 per cent of those progressing, while students from the lowest socio-economic groups - routine occupations, never worked and long-term unemployed – account for no more than 4 per cent of progressing students in this period. Even after controlling for a wide range of other characteristics, students from poorer backgrounds remain significantly less likely to progress than their wealthier peers.

Philip Wales said: “The analysis indicates that higher fees reduce student demand for postgraduate places but also reveals significant differences in the likelihood of progression between students from different socio-economic groups.

“The implications of these results for policy are especially clear. Firstly, a systematic effort is needed to monitor all postgraduate tuition fees in the UK. The absence of a database of fees by subject, institution and qualification level has presented a significant barrier for research and is an essential pre-requisite for efforts to effectively monitor access above undergraduate level.

“Secondly, there is a need to re-examine how public support for postgraduate study is allocated. My results suggest that students from poorer backgrounds are under-represented in postgraduate study and that the jump from undergraduate to postgraduate study presents an additional barrier, through both level effects and the deterrent effect of tuition fees. Policy makers should reconsider the funding arrangements for postgraduate study and in particular the extent of public support for students from low income backgrounds who aspire to study beyond undergraduate level.”

The data also shows that women were between 3.1 per cent and 3.4 per cent less likely to progress to postgraduate study than men for this time period. Students from non-white backgrounds were significantly more likely to remain in higher education. Black and Asian students are 5.5-6.6 per cent and 5.2-6.8 per cent more likely respectively to progress to a further degree than equivalent white students. While the effect of academic performance on the probability of a student progressing to a higher degree is broadly as expected, with students who obtain First or Upper Second Class undergraduate degrees being 13.4-16 per cent and 4.1-5.3 per cent more likely to remain in higher education than those who have obtained Lower Second Class degrees, school level results also appear to have a significant effect. Attendance at a private school prior to university significantly increases the likelihood of progression by between 0.9 per cent and 2.4 per cent.

‘Access all Areas? The Impact of Fees and Backgound on Student Demand for Postgraduate Higher Education in the UK’ is by Philip Wales, a PhD student at LSE.


Philip Wales, Department of Geography and Environment, email: p.d.wales@lse.ac.uk

Jess Winterstein, LSE Press Office, on 020 7107 5025, email: j.winterstein@lse.ac.uk


[1] The paper examines the proportion of students domiciled in the UK who are enrolled in a full-time course in higher education six to nine months after graduating with a first undergraduate degree. It does not take into account students who take a pause between their undergraduate and postgraduate studies. Around 10 per cent of graduating first-degree students in the UK progressed directly into study for a higher qualification between 2004-05 and 2008-09.

[2] The data reveals significant differences in tuition fees within and between institutions, depending on institution and type of course. Business studies courses saw the most expensive rise, from £3,920 in 2003-04 to a little over £6,810 in 2009-10. Education courses were least expensive, ranging from an average of £2,780 in 2003-04 to £3,720 in 2009-10. The Russell Group is found to have charged the highest average fees throughout the period, rising from £3,339 to £4,595.

28 March 2012