In the midst of the furore over undergraduate tuition fees, one group of people has been forgotten: the postgraduate student, especially those not doing PGCEs and other vocational courses.
Most undergraduates will emerge with a degree and £50,000 in debt (£27k in tuition fees and £20k+ in living expenses, much of this in the form of bank overdrafts and other loans which aren't protected by the government's loans scheme.
Who then will do an MA, an MSc., a DipSW, a Ph.D? I graduated with debts, though very little compared with my own students - the maximum student loan was £850 and there were no tuition fees. I took a year off to work in bars and the 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. night shift at Centrica's data entry mill, then returned to take a Master's degree part-time: without some help from the university, I'd never have been able to do it. By the time I started my Ph.D, I was struggling, and the £6500 p.a. scholarship from The Hegemon barely serviced my debts: only huge amounts of teaching and school supply teaching got me through it, to the detriment of my studies.
So why on earth would any 21 year-old take on further debt and spend more time out of employment in the new regime, in pursuit of a qualification which will rarely increase their earning potential? The love of a subject won't keep you warm and fed. The chilling effect will be to reduce the number of postgraduate students, reduce the field largely to science (generous bursaries are usually available in those disciplines) and reduce the institutions offering postgraduate tuition to the magic circle of the Russell Group: Oxbridge and their wannabe circle: without a self-perpetuating postgraduate community, other institutions will cease to be universities.
Who'll be left on postgraduate courses? Well, we know absolutely nothing about postgraduate cohorts, so what follows is entirely anecdotal. In science, corporately funded individuals doing work for immediate application: the kind of blue-skies science which may or may not lead to world-changing discoveries will wither away or move abroad (bad news for quantum physics, astronomy etc.). In the humanities, research will consist of the posh, privileged people who colonise the Russell Group and have enormous family resources available to pay the huge fees and living expenses - an MA will soon become a kind of finishing school. PhDs will be restricted to the same well-heeled bunch and humanities teaching and research will fall into the hands of a conservative, elitist group with little interest in radical critique, with terrible consequences for undergraduates and the wider culture. This isn't to say that some Russell Group universities don't practice inclusion - but the tuition fees regime will weed out people without financial backing and leave them with little choice about whom to admit.
I meet them all the time at conferences and they're all nice, hugely intellectual and passionate about their subjects - but their grasp of the general reality is very limited. At one training course I attended, several moaned about their 'huge' classes: when pressed, they meant 15, and they gasped with disbelief when I explained that would be considered tiny at my place: we close down modules with fewer than 25 students.
Anyone without this kind of support will be excluded - such as the group of extremely talented English graduates I taught last year - now working at Café Rouge and similar places. Some will go abroad: my friend Jim, armed with an astoundingly good BA (including a published journal paper, almost unheard of), faced with £5000 fees for an MA at Birmingham, has opted for VU in Amsterdam: €1771. Will he come back? Why should he?
Still - no new postgraduates might mean that my 'temporary' contract lasts until I retire at 68! It's an ill wind…