Recent changes to postgraduate funding: no improvement in fairer access

In their responses so far, the Scottish Government has constantly reiterated that changes introduced as part of recent reforms to postgraduate funding represents an adequate, or at least significant, measure to widen access to the legal profession. This post will examine this claim in detail and show why it is wrong. The recent changes are, at best, ineffective and wasteful. They may even be regressive.

The government’s alternative argument, that the Professional and Career Development Loan can deliver access to the profession for less privileged students, is analysed here.

Changes to the DPLP Funding Arrangements for 2012/13

Prior to 2012/13, the Postgraduate Students’ Award Scheme (PSAS) provided 300 fees grants of around £3,400 to DPLP students. Historically, the value of this grant would have matched the actual cost of the course whilst the number available meant nearly every DPLP student could obtain one. Over the past decade, the costs of the course, and the number of students taking it, have risen significantly. The funding remained capped in both value and number of awards. By 2010/11, fees were more than £6,000 whilst more than 650 students undertook the course. So fewer than 50% of students (selected on academic performance) received grants at all. And those that received grants still had to top-up the grant by nearly £3,000.

Until 2010/11, a small means-tested maintenance grant was also available through PSAS, although its value had been heavily eroded by inflation. The Scottish Government scrapped this element entirely in 2010/11 and, since then, there has been no assistance with living costs. As DPLP students fall under postgraduate funding arrangements, they are not eligible for the standard undergraduate student maintenance loans, regardless of need.

For 2012/13, the PSAS partial-fees grants are replaced by the Postgraduate Tuition Fee Loan (PTFL). The loans are cheaper for the Scottish Government, allowing at least part of the money saved to be reinvested in increasing the number of loans available. All eligible DPLP students will now receive a PTFL, representing 600-700 students. However, the amount has remained the same at £3,400. This is around half the total cost of the course: £6,300 plus £400 for compulsory course materials (figures for the University of Edinburgh DPLP)). There remains no support for living costs although the Scottish Government has recently acknowledged that this realistically cost a student around £7,000 per year.

The Scottish Government’s Claim

Referring to the PTFL, the Scottish Government claims that:

The new loan scheme opens up eligibility to a much wider group of students

 (Cabinet Secretary for Education, 31 May)

The PTFL: Ineffective

The government’s claim is true, but only if by a wider group you mean more. Clearly more DPLP students benefit from 600-700 loans per year than 300 grants. But fair access to the legal profession is not about more students having access to an already over-subscribed profession. Fair access to the legal profession is about ensuring that those from less well-off backgrounds are able to compete equally with their more privileged peers.

By this measure, increasing the number of loans available without increasing the amount of the contribution is almost entirely ineffective in widening access. As discussed above, the cost of a DPLP is now around £11,000-13,000 including living costs. Reducing this to around £9,000 is hardly flinging the doors of the profession open.  Less-privileged students not able to make this personal contribution remain cut-off from the legal profession solely by their inability to pay for their training.

The PTFL: Wasteful

The main beneficiary of the changes to the DPLP funding are therefore the well-off majority of students. In recent years more than half of students were able to afford to study the DPLP without any government assistance. These students will now all get a government contribution even though they do not need it. This is clearly a poor use of government money when the government claims that a constrained budget prevents it doing more.

With the removal of the cap on numbers, the PTFL will fund as many DPLP students as the Universities will train. There is already a significant oversupply of DPLP graduates. This means that a significant proportion of funding will go to people who will subsequently be unable to find jobs as lawyers and will be entirely wasted. The fact that the additional support introduced by the PTFL is going to the half of students who performed least well in their studies only exacerbates this.

The PTFL: Regressive?

The PTFL is wasteful as well as ineffective. But is it also regressive?

One of the Scottish Government arguments for the changes is that the previous system of awarding grants by academic merit tended to disadvantage students from non-traditional backgrounds. They rely on evidence suggesting less privileged students do less well in the first two years of University, when academic suitability for the DPLP is judged, than do equally bright students from more privileged backgrounds.

On face value, there is some logic in this argument. But any progressive effect of this change is more than wiped out by the fact that to gain £3,400 of government assistance, students must first be able to afford the personal contribution of £9,000 or more. So the removal of the academic merit test can’t help less privileged students who under-perform because of their background; they can’t benefit because they can’t afford the personal contribution.

In summary, the government has succeeded in introducing a system that does nothing to widen access to the profession. Instead the additional funding freed up by moving from grants to loans has been distributed in a way that overwhelmingly benefits those rich enough to need no help in affording the DPLP. It also does nothing to discourage the current oversupply of DPLP graduates.

It is not suggested that this was the deliberate aim of Scottish Government. But the reforms to postgraduate funding are certainly ill-though through and have resulted in changes that are ineffective, wasteful and probably regressive.

An earlier version of this post was published under the title ‘A Bridge to Nowhere‘.

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