Masters in procrastination

Universities can feel like graduate factories

Andrew Mickel

Topics Politics

It’s the end of the academic year and thousands of graduates face the prospect of finding a job. But with a bachelor’s degree coming to mean little to prospective employers, some graduates will end up stacking shelves or as call centre fodder. To avoid the uncertainty of life after university, more people are choosing to take masters’ degrees. Universities are keen to fill their funding shortfall with lucrative post-graduate students.

Between 1995-6 and 2002-3, there was a 42 per cent increase in the number of people choosing to take a taught MA (1), with almost 10 per cent of graduates staying on for postgraduate education (2). Many of the extra 35,000 students a year are from overseas, attracted to the prestige associated with some British universities – but a significant proportion are British. While some British students stay out of academic interest, many seem to choose an MA as a way to postpone entering the job market. Between the lie-ins and long sessions down the pub, it’s perhaps little wonder that more people want to stay as students.

Helen Finlayson is about to start an MA in Politics and Economics. ‘I’m unsure what I want to do once I finally leave the comfort of university life, and I want to put that off as long as possible. But I’m also aware that my undergrad degree is largely useless, because of the increasing numbers of people who hold bachelor’s degrees.’ Bachelor’s degrees are now pretty much open to anyone who wants one, and many are becoming easier by the year. When you can get a 2:1 off the back of three or four hours’ work a week, or go months without even attending lectures, a degree is going to mean little to any prospective employers. People are now looking to masters to provide the new yardstick in academic achievement.

MAs were once seen as only for those with an aim to enter academia, but they are now becoming mainstream. Less than 30 per cent of graduates seriously look for a job when they first leave university (3). Stephanie Hammans, who is about to start an MA in English literature, says: ‘I would rather “waste” a year getting an MA rather than working as a data imputer or checkout person. It’s not like you can’t work at the same time so you can still get money.’ Mike Hill, chief executive of the graduate service Prospects, argues that this trend is likely to continue. ‘I think it will inevitably follow the American model, where they tend to only take people with MAs and MScs. We’re not quite there yet, but my daughter’s 12 and by the time she graduates I think we will be.’ (4)

MAs aren’t restricted to new graduates – as many as a third of postgraduates are people returning to university in a career break. Chris Gage, the education officer from the Mature Students Union, says that people may need the career boost within their chosen field, or because they have been made redundant. Some also return to university mid-career because of ‘the realisation that the individual concerned may have wasted their original “bite at the educational cherry” and as a result they have ended up in a dead end job’. For others, it’s about taking ‘time out’ from the world, in much the same way as other thirtysomethings choose to go backpacking around India.

Financial barriers don’t seem to put people off. Between the financial support of parents and the easy availability of credit – as well as the flippant attitude that most students have towards amassing debt – more can afford to stay on, even if they aren’t entirely convinced of the benefits of the degree. While undergraduate costs are capped, universities can charge whatever they like for postgraduate courses – up to £41,970 for the prestigious MA in Business Administration at London Business School. The cost of MAs has become a way for universities to make money and for students to buy their way to prestige. MA degrees are already touted in emails from US institutions, for those willing to pay enough money. How long before the click-and-buy masters come to the UK?

The consumerisation of education has been affecting bachelor’s degrees for years. Universities can feel like graduate factories, aiming only to churn out the maximum number of happy customers. MA students are often more comfortable than undergraduates with complaining to departments if they think that the service is not up to scratch. When students have to pay steeper rates for masters’ degrees than for undergraduate study, they could feel more like consumers.

All this is likely to mean that MAs won’t count for much in the end. If bachelor’s degrees are now perceived as devalued, it’s likely that MAs will go down the same path.

Andrew Mickel is a student at Cardiff University, and has worked as a spiked intern.

(1) Postgraduate education in the United Kingdom (.doc), Tom Sastry, Higher Education Policy Institute, November 2004

(2) First degree all subjects – 2002 graduates,, Spring 2004

(3) Graduates slow on job uptake, Guardian, 20 July 2004

(4) Boom time, Stephen Cook, Guardian, 15 June 2004

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Topics Politics


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