HEFCE Postgraduate Support Scheme at Oxford | University of Oxford
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HEFCE Postgraduate Support Scheme at Oxford

The University of Oxford’s vision is that “no potential student should be deterred from applying to Oxford by financial or other barriers and that no student’s success should be hampered by financial difficulties”. (University of Oxford Strategic Plan, 2013-18)

Oxford won the largest single-institution award of £3 million from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) as part of a £25 million pilot scheme to test ways of supporting progression into taught postgraduate education in England and develop an evidence-base for future policy. The University contributed a further £750,000 from its own funds.

Oxford’s HEFCE Postgraduate Support Scheme (PSS) pilot project has three main aims:

  • increasing mobility into and out of taught postgraduate (PGT) study;
  • enhancing progression into a wide range of professions including academic research; and
  • developing a greater understanding of the barriers to accessing postgraduate education.

The pilot project has tested how the lack of funding is a key barrier to PGT study by offering:

  • 116 full fees and living cost scholarships awarded to Home/EU master’s students on the basis of financial circumstances, socio-economic data, and academic merit as assessed through the admissions process;
  • 196 funded research internships for current undergraduates to encourage them to consider postgraduate study; 
  • 102 funded professional internships for current master’s students to facilitate informed career progression; and 
  • a bespoke professional and personal development programme for up to 50 female master’s students, Springboard, to help address differential rates of career progression compared with men.

Initial findings from Oxford’s pilot project reveal that:

There is a high level of unmet need for funding for taught postgraduate study

Almost 1200 eligible PGT offer-holders were invited to apply for a PSS scholarship; three-quarters applied, or nine applicants for every scholarship. 44% of respondents to a survey of applicants said that they had applied for the scholarship due to their inability to take up their place without funding.

The PSS-funded research and professional internships also attracted around nine applications for every placement.

Funding influences student decision-making 

We asked our PSS scholars what would have been the minimum value of a partial scholarship, in order for it to enable them to take up their place. 45% said that a partial award would have made no difference, as they would have been unable to come without full scholarship funding. As one scholar explains,

“it may have been my academic results that have opened the doors of the University of Oxford for me – but it was this scholarship alone that made it possible for me to walk through these doors.”

Most UK-domiciled scholars had spent one to three years in full-time work before progressing to PGT study, suggesting they require personal savings to fund their course. Over 90% of our UK-domiciled PSS scholars have debt outstanding from undergraduate study.

Socio-economic background influences educational opportunities at postgraduate level

We asked scholarship applicants to say how likely it would be that they could take up their offer of a place at Oxford if they did not get the scholarship. There was a clear linear correlation between applicants’ degree of socio-economic disadvantage, and how they answered this question: the most disadvantaged applicants were more likely to say that they couldn’t come without the scholarship.

Scholarships are an essential part of taught postgraduate funding: loans cannot be the only solution to supporting progression to master’s-level study

Whilst a PGT loans scheme is a welcome addition to funding options for PGT study, it will not suit all students. We asked our PSS scholars whether, if they had not been offered a full scholarship, they would have been interested in either a £10k bursary or a £10k loan. While 94% of respondents expressed interest in a bursary, only 60% expressed interest in a loan. 80% of UK-domiciled PSS scholars who were not interested in a loan cited the accumulation of further student debt as their primary objection, with more than a quarter also expressing concern about any loan’s possible impact on their future credit-worthiness.

Funding enables students to get the maximum benefit from postgraduate study, academically and professionally

Funding is critical to students realising their full academic potential and maximising the value of PGT study, both whilst studying and in the long-term. Scholars say that the scholarship has allowed them to focus on getting the most out of their studies:

“I have always had to balance my studies with part-time work and this could be very stressful at times. The scholarship has meant that I could focus purely on studying and not have to worry about financial matters.” 

It also enables them to engage in relevant extra-curricular activities, such as volunteering, community consultancy, and attending lectures outside their discipline. One response captures the long-term importance of such activities:

“I have co-managed the course blog, and have attended evening lectures and spent time with friends in the evening occasionally. While these are not a lot - they are far more than I managed when an undergraduate student due to paid work commitments - and would not have been possible had I taken a part time job here. … Opportunities and ideas are less likely to arise if you don't talk to people - and the isolation brought by struggling financially is another barrier to getting a good career.”

75% of students who completed a postgraduate internship in 2014 say that they have made contacts and developed networks through their professional placements that should help them pursue their career goals.

It is possible to identify disadvantage amongst prospective PGT students

Oxford created an innovative scholarship selection process based on socio-economic background and current financial need as well as the usual criterion of academic merit needed for an Oxford scholarship. Eligible offer-holders were invited to complete an online questionnaire that collected the additional data needed. Indicators that are specific to age or national groups were avoided, and a scoring process was devised that obviated the need for subjective assessments of applicants’ personal circumstances.

The selection process ensured that there was no statistically significant variation in success rates between applicants from the UK and the rest of the EU, and that applicants were not disadvantaged on the basis of any protected characteristic (such as gender, ethnicity or disability).

There was a close correlation between students who received funding for low-income backgrounds at undergraduate level and those selected for a PSS scholarship. At least 63% of UK-domiciled and 55% of EU-domiciled PSS scholars received funding as an undergraduate that was awarded on the basis of low income (N.B. many PSS scholars studied under funding systems where such support was not available); moreover, three-quarters of PSS scholarship recipients who had previously studied at Oxford had received an Oxford Bursary (for undergraduates from low-income families).

Universities are best-placed to devise targeted solutions to supporting PGT students

Universities are able to develop postgraduate support programmes that are appropriate to their academic mission, subject provision, and geographic location. HEFCE’s pilot project not only provided the necessary funding, but ideas and support from across the 20 pilot institutions. Oxford’s PSS pilot activities have built successfully on our prior experience in delivering graduate scholarships and career development programmes to our students.

A longer-term programme of policy research has also been initiated as part of the pilot project, which (with the support of University funds) is continuing beyond the life of the 2014-15 PSS award. It aims to maximise learning gains from these pilot activities, and to develop a new evidence-base to support transition to postgraduate study.

For more information about the 2014-15 Oxford pilot project’s activities, please see the 'Scholarships' and 'Career Development' sections on this page.

Oxford Graduate Scholarships, supported by HEFCE

The Oxford Graduate Scholarships, supported by HEFCE, have been a major part of Oxford's pilot project. The ground-breaking pilot scheme was designed to promote access to taught postgraduate education for UK and other EU students. For the first time, scholarships were awarded on the basis of financial circumstances and socio-economic data in addition to academic merit as assessed through the admissions process.

Applicants were required to have Home or EU fee status or be ordinarily resident in the EU, and to have been offered a place on an eligible taught postgraduate course at Oxford, for study commencing in 2014-15. The scholarships covered 100% of University and college fees and a grant for living costs, and were awarded for the full duration of students' fee liability for their course.

116 new scholarships, supported by HEFCE, the University and other donors, were awarded to students who started a PGT course at Oxford in 2014-15. The scholarships offered via this pilot brought to over 1,000 the number of scholarships available to students commencing postgraduate study at Oxford in 2014-15.

One of our Graduate Scholars was Simone Webb, who first came to Oxford as a sixth-form student attending the University's UNIQ summer school for students from schools with little or no history of successful application to Oxford. After studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics as an undergraduate, the Oxford Graduate Scholarship has now enabled Simone to pursue a master's in Women's Studies. She says:

"Doing a postgraduate degree was very important to me as my ultimate ambition is to go into academia, and a master’s level degree is a necessary step into that … Not receiving funding would have meant a complete rethink of my life plans, and doing something which I would have wanted to do a lot less. … I would not have been able to do my course without the scholarship, and I believe funding which is allocated at least partly according to financial need is absolutely vital to help people take up graduate offers and contribute to their disciplines."

Career Development Support

Oxford has delivered three pilot activities to support our current students in planning for and progressing to postgraduate study and professional careers, including academic research:

  • funded research internships for current undergraduates to encourage them to consider postgraduate study; 
  • funded professional internships for current master’s students to facilitate informed career progression; and 
  • a bespoke professional and personal development programme, Springboard for female master’s students, to help address differential rates of career progression compared with men.

Internships are increasingly important – they boost employability, open the doors to the professions and support informed decision-making about further study and career pathways. But internship opportunities are often unpaid, and lack of funding can therefore pose a barrier to access. Through the PSS, Oxford has funded two types of internships, covering travel, local living costs, accommodation and (for international opportunities) visas, immunisations, and insurance:

  • the Oxford Undergraduate Research Programme has aimed to stimulate progression to postgraduate study by offering funded research internships for Home/EU undergraduates each year for 6-8 weeks over the 2014 and 2015 summer vacations. Placement opportunities have covered a wide range of subject areas and have been hosted by leading research organisations in the UK and globally. Examples include: Kelmscott Manor (UK), the Library of Congress (USA), and the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência (Portugal).
  • the Oxford Postgraduate Internship Awards have aimed to bridge the gap between academic studies and graduate careers by offering funded professional internships for Home/EU PGT students each year for 6-8 weeks over the 2014 and 2015 summer vacations. Placement opportunities have covered a wide range of sectors and have been hosted by prominent national and global organisations. Examples include: the Field Archaeology Unit of the Museum of Liverpool (UK), World Food Programme headquarters (Italy), and Süddeutsche Zeitung (Germany).

PSS interns have made valued contributions to the research or professional work of host organisations; the Queen’s Nursing Institute for example, describes the experience of hosting an intern as “very positive. The OUIP [Oxford Internships Office] staff were very helpful, the quality of candidates was very high and our intern worked very hard for us.”

Both programmes have been delivered by the University of Oxford’s Internship Office.

Springboard for female master’s students: Oxford has also launched a brand new version of the highly successful women’s personal development programme, Springboard, specifically tailored to the needs and concerns of female master’s students. Springboard has equipped participants to develop their skills and abilities to help address gendered patterns of achievement. The course consists of three consecutive full days of training at the end of term, plus a follow-up workshop at the start of the following term. Thanks to PSS funding and sponsorship from Shell, the course was free to participants. One participant describes its impact:

“I got the rare chance to take some time to reflect and think about what I want, what I am good at, and what I am struggling with. Doing this in a supportive environment, with individuals who, although strangers, want the best for you, can have the most meaningful impact on your life.”

Springboard is delivered by the University of Oxford’s Careers Service.

Oxford Graduate Bursaries

In the 2014 Autumn Budget Statement, the Government confirmed that HEFCE would allocate £50 million to higher education institutions (HEIs) to offer 10,000 bursaries, each worth £10,000, on a 50/50 match-funded basis. These bursaries were intended to provide a bridge between the funding already offered to students via the PSS pilot projects for PGT study in 2014-15, and the proposed introduction from 2016-17 of income-contingent loans for master’s-level study.

Over 90 Oxford Graduate Bursaries, worth £10,000 each and supported jointly and equally by HEFCE and the University, have been awarded for a wide range of taught master’s courses at Oxford, starting in 2015-16. Recipients have been selected on the basis of financial circumstances and socio-economic data in addition to academic merit as assessed through the admissions process.

Applicants were required to have Home or EU fee status and to have been offered a place on an eligible taught master’s course at Oxford, for study commencing in 2015-16. HEFCE has further stipulated that bursary applicants must be "progressing from an undergraduate course for which they were charged the higher tuition fee applying since 2012-13".