At the end of May, the Department for the Economy announced that it will be funding bursaries for 100 students studying master’s degrees. For these students, their fees will be paid and they will receive an additional £10,000 payment to live off. While this is a positive move for students, more desperately needs to be done.
Fifty bursaries are to be given to Ulster students, while the rest will go to QUB. Ulster have not released any further information about the bursaries, but according to Queen’s website, only certain courses are eligible. These subjects are mainly medicine-related and STEM subjects, with the only humanities-related course included being Arts Management.
The reason these bursaries are being funded is to support economic recovery following the pandemic. While it is short-sighted to discount all humanities subjects as not being compatible with economic recovery, that isn’t the point. It would matter much less if all Northern Irish postgraduate students were given the opportunity to access adequate loans, as they are in the rest of the UK.
Students in England can access £11,570 in the 2021/22 academic year. This number changes to £10,000 in Scotland and £17,489 in Wales. By contrast, the maximum amount of loan available to postgraduates in this country is £5,500. This doesn’t cover tuition fees in full, never mind living costs. This puts Northern Irish graduates at a clear disadvantage when entering an employment market that increasingly demands postgraduate qualifications.
In the Government’s Graduate Labour Market Statistics 2020 report, postgraduates had a higher employment rate than both graduates and non-graduates. 75.5% were in high-skilled jobs, compared to 58.1% of graduates. They also earned £7,000 more annually. Setting aside the obvious earnings benefits from studying a masters, there are many other reasons someone may need or want to study for an MA. For some jobs, they are a requirement – for others, they are highly favourable.
Not only are Northern Irish graduates at a disadvantage compared with other UK students, but it fosters inequality between students who have parents who can afford to fund their MA and those who do not. nidirect suggests taking a year out and working to fund a postgraduate course, or taking on a part-time job while studying.
Most students already need a part-time job while doing their undergraduate degrees. For many, surviving on 16-20 hours per week - often for minimum wage - alongside a full-time MA, while still achieving the best grades they are capable of is simply not achievable. With rising rent costs, care leavers and those estranged from their families who are unable to live at home rent-free are at further disadvantage. While still paying rent, it could take years to save enough to be able to study. In addition, some prospective students may have disabilities which preclude them from working the kinds of jobs often available to students, like hospitality and retail.
The lack of postgraduate funding means that master’s degrees are, in many cases, only available to those from middle and upper-class families. Care leavers, disabled students and the working class should be able to study for an MA if they choose to.
The continued lack of political will to change this only contributes to social and financial inequality. Every other nation in the United Kingdom provides much higher funding for postgraduate degrees – why not Northern Ireland?
Emma Montgomery is a English Literature graduate from the University of Liverpool starting her Journalism Master's in September. She is also a content manager for a tech start-up based in Liverpool.