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Funding a postgraduate degree

The Guardian

With some timely planning, postgraduate Michelle Smith managed to cut her master’s course fees from £5,500 to £2,150. She went straight into an MSc in clinical and developmental neuropsychology at Bournemouth University (BU) where she’d been an undergraduate. She got five per cent knocked off due to early fees payment, a 20 per cent discount for alumni and a newly launched academic excellence scholarship worth £2,000. Like many postgrads, she’s funded the rest through part time jobs and savings, and believes her course, with eight contact hours a week, is better value for money than an undergraduate degree. “I reassure myself I will one day have a much higher paid job through studying postgraduate qualifications and so the financial hardship will pay off in the long term.”

Next year, the first students who’ve paid higher fees of up to £9,000 a year will graduate. While universities worry how many will manage to pay for taught masters at an average £5,680, and living costs on top, postgraduates are beginning to find ever more inventive ways of affording their education. Although research councils and charities fund some postgraduate research, taught master’s students generally pay their own way - last year just 11 per cent received grants.

“Portfolio funding is becoming more popular,” says Mike Hill, chief executive at graduate careers experts Prospects. “This means securing different pockets of cash rather than just relying on one source.” Students should contact charities, businesses, universities and trusts, and make their applications as strong as possible, he says.

Most students who go on to postgraduate study decide to do so in their final year, which is when they need to be on the ball, hunting down grants, appealing to charities, even investigating novel crowdsourcing methods, says Elaine Warrener, higher education funding adviser at the University of Hull, which has just appointed a new dedicated finance officer to help postgraduates find funding.

The sooner students decide upon a postgraduate route, the better, she adds. “Plan, plan and then plan some more,” she says, and pick the brains of university staff who can point students towards “often invisible” funds. Like most universities, Hull offers grants and scholarships and partners with business, but these monies get snapped up quickly. Nationwide, many niche science, technology, engineering and maths subjects can be sponsored by industry, while courses on teaching, medical, healthcare and social work receive funding to some extent. As a rule of thumb, popular subjects such as psychology are harder to fund.

Of course another option is borrowing up to £10,000 as a bank-administered career development loan. But unlike with undergraduate loans, interest and repayments start one month after graduation. These terms so worried postgraduate Ellis Wall that she decided to fund her £7,920 MSc in Wild Animal Biology at the Royal Veterinary College with savings from a year of hard graft instead. “I was nervous at the lack of leeway in the loan repayment and interest,” she says. When she’s not traipsing around the likes of Whipsnade Zoo, she’s tutoring undergraduates for a couple of hours a week or getting up early at weekends to work at her local golf club. Though she has £18,000 of student debt from her first degree, she’s happy to be spendthrift and live with her parents, and hopes eventually to progress to paid research “Life’s quite hard work at the moment but this will be worth it in the longer term.”

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