Rising to the Master’s challenge

Dr Demetra Katsifli from Blackboard offers her view on the new student loan for Master’s system

From 1 August 2016, people will be able to apply for a student loan for a Master’s Degree.  How important will employability be and how can universities prepare for a possible increase in students taking a Master’s?

The Chancellor George Osborne’s announcement of the introduction of postgraduate loans system was, on the whole, welcomed at the end of last year. With loans scheduled to be available this year, the Government predicts this initiative could increase the numbers of students entering Master’s programmes by 10,000 a year. At the time, George Osborne said it would “revolutionise” access to postgraduate university courses. Loans will be available for any Master’s subject but will only be available to students under the age of 30. Students will repay the loan in the same way they are repaying their existing student loan.

Mid-career professionals should be encouraged to upskill: there’s a trend towards the portfolio career, or gig economy, which benefits self-starters and those with the endorsement of a qualification

I believe the introduction of loans for Master’s programmes will have a significant impact on numbers. Currently, many students feel put off enrolling in a Master’s programme because of the cost of tuition fees, especially for high-end Master’s degrees which could cost three or four times the £10K average. With funding options, students that have just graduated are more likely to enroll into a Master’s programme straight from graduation and those currently working are more likely to participate part-time.

The main dilemma Master’s students will have will be whether to borrow again.  Mid-career professionals should be encouraged to upskill: there’s a trend towards the portfolio career, or gig economy, which benefits self-starters and those with the endorsement of a qualification. And there’s an advantage also for students fresh out of university: in theory, choosing to stay on another year in a Master’s programme will help them enter the workforce at an advantage.

In both cases, the availability of postgraduate loans will increase demand and that undoubtedly will have an impact on institutions. The resulting student body will come from a more diverse background, and universities will have to work hard to ensure the students are all on the same page. Having a mixture of students fresh from a three or four-year degree course working alongside mid-career professionals could result in a class groups that vary greatly academically. It’s essential for teachers to ensure during pre-enrolment that students will be able to keep up with the course, even more so for those students who are completing the course part-time via distance learning.

Students will need pre-enrolment support and one method of doing this is through MOOCs, which can provide access to a host of high-quality preparatory learning materials and assessments. Teachers will also need to monitor the progress of students to ensure that they are all engaged, participating and at the same level across the board. With Master’s courses not long in duration (one-year full time and two years’ part time, for example) students don’t have time to fall behind and catch up. Institutions need to act quickly to support anyone who’s at risk of falling behind – it can be easy to fail quickly.  To this end, institutions may well wish to monitor how quickly staff are responding to students’ request for help, both academic and non-academic.

Historically Master’s degrees have only really been available to those who could afford the £10,000+ price tag.  This new funding does offer a ‘democratisation’ of this higher education opportunity although the fear of getting further into debt is a reality for many and can be a reason why some may be reluctant to take out a postgraduate loan. Graduates or mid-career professionals that take Master’s will want to feel that there is going to be a good return on their investment.  With that in mind, a lot of Master’s programmes are trying to build a focus on employability into postgraduate courses.

I’m all for postgraduate loans but, as explained before, I do think there has to be some work put into ensuring the institutions will be able to handle a diverse student body. Here are some considerations for universities when preparing for a possible surge in demand for Master’s degrees:

1.     Consider how you can handle the varying needs of a diverse student intake.  Part-time students will be studying within a different context to full-time postgrads.  How well do your university’s support systems and processes recognise and support that?

2.     Learning styles will also be different and those that have been out of full time education for a while may need some opportunities to refresh their knowledge and learning techniques. How does your institution plan to support “returning” students, and how would you monitor that students are getting timely assistance?

3.     The impact on a student’s employability is becoming more significant to the individual.  How are you working with sector professionals to ensure the right skills are being developed within your Master’s programmes that will result in graduates being sought after by future employers?

Dr Demetra Katsifli is senior director of international industry management at Blackboard.