Limited Funding for Postgraduates hinders Social Mobility

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Studying – Source: Unsplash

Roman emperor and philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, once wrote that one should endeavour to:

“Speak the truth as you see it.
But with kindness.
With humility.
Without hypocrisy”.

The “truth” as I see it is that there is a lack of funding for low-income students in England who seek to undertake a Masters degree. As such many academically gifted young people who come from disadvantaged communities have limited opportunity to go on and achieve their dreams of gaining a Masters degree that could aid them in the future.

I am speaking from personal experience having just graduated from Durham  University with First-Class Honours and gained a postgraduate offer to study an MPhil in Assyriology at the University of Cambridge. This is everything I’ve ever wanted. And yet … Despite my hard-earned high grades (exceeding my Cambridge grade requirements), my low-income background is threatening to sink this opportunity.

This situation seems to reiterate the previous expectation that I would never succeed academically. I was born thirteen weeks premature, weighing just one pound and five ounces with brain scarring. The brain scarring itself would lead me to have a Grand Mal seizure when I was five years old (nearly putting me in a coma). It also left my teachers telling my mother that I would require special needs support and never be academically-inclined during one parents evening at primary school.

But, I did succeed, despite all of this because I fell in love with reading (thanks to J.K Rowling) and this led me to develop a deep and life-changing passion and interest in English Literature, History, Religion, and Philosophy. I went on to gain A*’s and A’s in GCSE’s and A Levels and kindled a desire to spend my whole life studying. This has not changed and I continue to aspire to become a Professor of Ancient History and an author.

But after all of this, I cannot afford to go to the University of Cambridge to take up a degree that I am insanely passionate about and have worked towards diligently.

The student loan in England only provides an English student with £11,570 (in the face of Welsh students having the chance to get £18,000), which is expected to only “help” cover the tuition fees of the course, accommodation costs and food. This leaves the very significant remainder of the outstanding fees and costs to be picked up by the student, either through gaining a scholarship or self-funding. Let me be clear: This amount of money provided by a government loan does not even cover the fees of most courses at top institutions, such as Oxford, Cambridge, Durham and St. Andrews. Indeed, my own course, like the majority at the University of Cambridge, costs £12,159. Thus, even the £11,570 government loan and the money that I have earned from taking up a job at McDonalds since I was sixteen and have kept throughout my education (until the Covid-19 pandemic) does not even cover the estimated £10,000 – £13,000 in living fees as well. I like many other low-income students across England cannot save up this much money, especially during the pandemic, and for those like myself who suffer with lung conditions and find themselves in the ‘at risk’ category.

The lack of funding at Masters level is hugely disappointing and must be changed for low-income students who are currently being held back from achieving their academic dreams of attending top institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge simply because of their lack of means to have and raise the funds, not because of their lack of academic ability. After huge amounts of research, I believe that there is not only a gargantuan lack of debate and awareness about this issue, which helps to perpetuate social inequality, but also a lack of help on the ground. There are significantly less funding options available for Masters students compared to those at Undergraduate and PhD levels, even if they have glittering grades. It appears that Masters funding is all too often used as a means of social exclusion, restricting many from having the opportunity to progress further into academia and go on to obtain higher qualifications such as a PhD.

There is a horrifying lack of charities and scholarships dedicated to helping face this problem and a lack of help available at local levels. Low-income Masters level students, like myself are left with practically nothing, despite this meagre loan from Student Finance England. A loan, in contrast to the Undergraduate loan, that is not based on a family’s income. The most privileged students in society could get this £11,570, whilst the poorest are unable to even cover their course fees with it. This is wrong and yet there is no discussion being had on this issue.

We do need to see change, a conversation and increased awareness about the very real struggles that low-income students and academics are facing. We live in a society that values social mobility for all, but this lack of funding for low-income Masters students, such as myself who are unable to fund their places at historically-elitist institutions and undertake degrees in historically male-dominated and wealthy dominated academic fields, cannot break these barriers alone.
Enough is enough. Change is needed and conversations must be had.

Ed: If you are a potential Masters Student and are interested in this or would like to know more about this issue and support, email Sophie at:

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