Tuition fee loans of up to £5,500 will be available in Northern Ireland (NI) from 2017/18, for eligible students taking a taught postgraduate programme

Is my programme eligible for a NI postgraduate loan?

Programmes mustn't start before the 2017/18 academic year, and must be delivered by a university or college in the UK.

All full-time taught postgraduate programmes up to and including Masters degrees are eligible, providing that they last no longer than one year. Part-time and distance learning courses are also covered, but mustn't last for more than three years.

Eligible qualifications include:

Research degrees such as the Master of Philosophy (MPhil) and PhD are ineligible, while Master of Research (MRes) courses are eligible only if defined as taught. However, NI is currently considering a separate postgraduate research loans scheme, similar to England's forthcoming PhD loans system.

Am I eligible?

Eligibility criteria for the NI postgraduate loan is similar to that of England's Masters loan.

You can only apply for a NI postgraduate loan if your chosen programme is at a higher academic level than any of your existing qualifications.

Therefore, while you cannot receive the loan to study for a second Masters degree, postgraduate diploma (PgDip) or postgraduate certificate (PgCert), you can receive the loan to study for a:

  • Masters degree if you already hold a PgDip, PgCert or undergraduate degree;
  • PgDip if you already hold a PgCert or undergraduate degree;
  • PgCert if you already hold an undergraduate degree.

Residential eligibility criteria is slightly more straightforward than England's Masters loan. If you're a UK national who has lived in NI for the last three years for a reason other than study, you're eligible. Similarly, students from the European Union (EU) are eligible if they've been resident in the EU, European Economic Area (EEA) or Switzerland for the last three years for a reason other than study. However, they must study at a university in NI.

How will I receive my loan?

The loan will be paid directly to your institution by the Student Loans Company (SLC). The loan only covers your tuition fees, and therefore the amount that you can borrow is capped at £5,500 or the cost of your programme - whichever is lower. If your programme costs more than £5,500, you'll have to pay the excess yourself or find additional methods of postgraduate funding.

The loan will be paid in three instalments throughout the academic year if you're studying full time, while for part-time programmes, the payment of the loan will be spread equally across each year of your course. For example, a loan of £5,500 will be paid to your university in instalments of:

  • £2,750 each year if it is a two-year programme;
  • £1,834 each year if it is a three-year programme.

When will I repay my loan?

Postgraduate debt is combined with any undergraduate debt that you've already incurred, and repaid at a rate of 9% on your earnings over £17,495. Interest rates haven't been confirmed, but will be set either at the retail price index (RPI) or at 1% above the base rate of a selected group of banks. Interest will begin accruing once the university receives the first loan instalment.

You'll begin repayments from the April after you graduate. Debt will be cancelled after 25 years, but most graduates will have already fully repaid by this point.

If you're a UK national, your employer will take the repayments directly from your wage; or, if you're self-employed, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) will calculate how much you must repay on completion of your annual self-assessment tax return. If you're not a UK national, the SLC will contact you directly regarding repayments.

How do I apply for a loan?

Applications will be made via the SLC, though exact details are still unconfirmed.

How does the NI postgraduate loan compare to the English Masters loan?

Postgraduate loans in NI will be:

  • worth a maximum of £5,500, which can only be used towards tuition fees;
  • available from 2017/18;
  • available for most taught postgraduate programmes up to and including Masters degrees;
  • paid directly to universities;
  • added to any undergraduate student debt;
  • repaid at 9% of income over £17,495.

Masters loans in England are:

  • worth a maximum of £10,000, which can be used towards tuition fees and living costs;
  • available now, for courses beginning from the 2016/17 academic year;
  • available for most taught and research Masters degrees;
  • paid directly to students;
  • repaid concurrently with any undergraduate student debt;
  • repaid at 6% of income over £21,000.