We’re all told as children that we can do anything we want. Work hard at school and aim high, and the means to succeed at whatever you want to do will be there when you reach it.
But many students who want to pursue postgraduate study soon find that their wings have been clipped, by an unfair funding system that favours the privileged.
This summer, the issue was pushed into the limelight yet again, by Keziah Conroy’s decision to crowdfund her MRes in Biodiversity, Evolution and Conservation at University College London, through the educational funding platform Hubbub.
Keziah, 24, graduated from UCL with a First Class degree in Geography, won first prize for her final thesis, and finished in the top 5 per cent of her year. Quite reasonably, some might think, she believed that when she decided to pursue a career as a research scientist further, funding for the £13,285 course fees would be available from somewhere.
But Kez, like so many other would-be postgraduate students before her, was brought swiftly back down to earth when it became clear that little help would be coming her way. Despite securing a small £2,000 scholarship towards the cost of her fees she was turned down for the 5 other UCL scholarships available to her.
“The criteria [for the funding] were financial need and academic ability,” Kez told me. “So I was surprised that I didn’t get any, considering I am both poor and smart.”
The only other option for students who want to pursue postgraduate education is currently a Career Development Loan, which is not only capped at £10,000, but also has a financially crippling interest rate of 9.9 per cent.
Despite working part-time during her undergraduate course, both at McDonald’s and as a live-in carer, Kez says that even taking a full-time job in tandem with a full-time course wouldn’t cover her costs.
“I did the maths and realised it would be physically impossible for me to earn enough to cover the fees as well as my living costs in London. On minimum wage, doing 8-hour shifts, it would take 400 days to earn my fees and my rent.”
But Kez’s story is far from uncommon. Although students in Britain are more privileged than many in the world, the simple fact is that it’s still rare for gifted and financially disadvantaged students to outstrip the competition past undergraduate level.
Far more often, rather than the most academically deserving students soaring ahead, many are weighed down by the heavy burden of crippling fees, and the injustice of a funding system designed to keep them away from the top of the educational class.
Privileged families only
“The increase [in students crowdfunding their fees] has been quite marked, particularly in postgraduate courses,” says Jonathan May, Hubbub’s CEO. “The job market has got tougher [and] many students are turning to Masters courses to supplement their education. But there is nowhere near enough funding – debt or otherwise – to support otherwise successful students who can’t afford Masters courses.”
The current system, then, is plainly socially unjust for thousands of students like Kez who have the academic ability to succeed, but don’t have the luxury of a wealthy family or benefactor to support them through their studies.
Even so, many of the enterprising students who turn to crowdfunding as a last resort to fund their education, have come under fire online from people who see the platform as a ‘lazy’ alternative to full-time work, and the young people who use it as simply ‘scrounging’ from others.
“Mostly, I think this is a misguided sense of injustice,” says Jonathan. “[These views] bely a lack of belief in equality of opportunity and a misunderstanding about the funding model – which is entirely optional on the part of the donor.”
In fact, Jonathan believes there should be criticism of crowdfunding for education, but instead of attacking the students who use it, the criticism should be that structurally, crowdfunding doesn’t do anything to narrow the opportunity gap.
“Because the power of personal networks is such a critical component of success in crowdfunding, it often magnifies inequality rather than reducing it,” he argues.
“If a student with a wealthy family, substantial existing networks, or friends in high places attempts to crowdfund, their success rates are much higher. This means that those without these support systems find the same lack of opportunity present in what is supposed to be democratic finance.”
Reshaping the system
Clearly, this is a much bigger problem than simply one student with exceptional academic ability being barred from education. In reality, this is happening to thousands of people across the country every year.
But the system is slowly changing.
From next year, a new student loan for postgraduate study will be introduced, which will offer up to £10,000 for anyone under the age of 30 who wants to study a taught postgraduate course.
This is a step in the right direction, but for existing Masters students the move is simply too little too late, and for people like Kez, whose course fees significantly outstrip the value of the loan, it still leaves them tied to the ground.
“We give undergraduates enormous loans – including an extra year’s worth of loans in case they fail a year,” she says.
“A viable postgraduate loan would be great. I would take out a loan if it actually answered my funding problems, but at the moment it doesn’t.”
The problem, then, doesn’t lie with crowdfunding, and it shouldn’t simply be pinned under the label of ‘scrounging’ or ‘entitled’ students wanting other people to pay for their education.
The real issue, as Jonathan says, is that we need better systems than family money, better solutions than underwritten loans, and better alternatives than crowdfunding to fund the students who really need help to access educational opportunities.
The postgraduate loan is, of course, a welcome development, but it certainly isn’t enough to bridge the gap between the wealthy few and the gifted many.
How many more students have to be priced out of further study before we begin to treat education, at any level, as a basic human right, and not simply as a further feather in the gilded cap of the privileged?
What do you think? Have your say in the comments section below.
There’s only one day left to donate to Kez’s crowdfunding project. You can make a contribution and check out the gifts here: https://hubbub.net/p/MRes4Kez