Education: So, is the cheque in the postgrad?

The number of students queuing up to do Masters degrees has reached unprecedented levels. But is this really a passport to a top job?

Postgraduate education has exploded in the past two decades as people have fallen over one another to sign up for Masters degrees. So dramatic has been the change that observers are saying the United Kingdom is becoming like America - you need a Masters degree on top of a first degree to get a decent job. Today The Independent is sponsoring a conference to look at how universities are managing this explosion.

Back in the mid-eighties there were 80,000 to 100,000 postgraduates in the UK; today that figure has quadrupled. Ray Cowell, Vice-chancellor of Nottingham Trent University, says: "The first degree is seen as a foundation which needs to be complemented by more specialised study related to the workplace. The message about lifelong education has begun to register - the notion that one qualification would see you through 30 years of career development is no longer tenable."

Jeremy Hoad, general secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee, who will be speaking at The Independent's conference, agrees. "It's much more common now for undergraduates to do a postgraduate course," he says. "Certainly the vast majority of people undertaking postgraduate degrees are on one-year, sometimes two-year, Masters courses. A lot of those courses are vocational, and employers are recognising the value of postgraduate qualifications."

Postgraduate degrees give people more knowledge of a particular area as well as the theoretical and methodological training to enable them to better analyse problems, say the experts. Many of those undertaking courses are part-timers - people already in work and seeking another qualification in order to progress.

But there are other reasons for the boom. Companies' attitudes towards further training have changed, according to Jonathan Slack, the chief executive of the Association of Business Schools. Increasingly they see training their employees as an investment rather than a cost.

Another speaker at the conference, Carl Gilleard, the chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, places the attitudes of employers and employees in a larger setting. As a nation we have become much more conscious of the importance of education, he says. There has been almost a revolution in access to education, raising aspirations and expectations. "You're inevitably going to see an increase in demand for continuing beyond the first degree."

In addition, research is important for companies to maintain a competitive edge in the global marketplace. Firms now understand the need for personnel who are up to date and can invent new ways of doing things which five the company a competitive edge. So, they are happy to see them undertaking further degrees.

Universities have been eager to put on new Masters courses to make money. It was one area where they had freedom after undergraduate numbers were capped. Postgraduate numbers were not capped - and universities were free, in theory, to charge the fees they wanted.

The result is that fees vary. The standard fee is around pounds 2,600 for a one-year Masters, but some institutions charge much more - and almost all charge more to overseas students. The London School of Economics charges pounds 9,000 for a one-year Masters in popular subjects, such as economics, management and international relations. Other highly rated universities are also able to charge a premium. Warwick, for example, raised its postgraduate fees by 12 per cent this year. And Warwick, along with a number of other institutions, charges a relatively high fee for its one-year Masters in Business Administration - pounds 17,000 as from this autumn.

"We have a major concern about the levels of fees and the services provided for the fees that are charged," says Mr Hoad. "Higher education hasn't fully grasped how the market is changing. Academics decide to put a course together without thinking enough about the needs of students."

Issues that have to be carefully considered are the quality of the teaching, the distinctiveness of courses, giving students information about how courses are organised and assessed and what support and facilities are available in the department. "All of those are fairly important issues that not all institutions are addressing comprehensively at the moment," says Mr Hoad.

Some universities are doing more than others. Warwick claims to be one of the good guys. Susan Bassnett, Warwick's Pro-vice-chancellor, says they have tried as far as possible to handle graduates separately from undergraduates. Graduates get their own accommodation and registration facilities as well as different borrowing privileges in the library.

Some universities, however, still do not give enough thought to how academics can combine looking after their postgraduates and teaching undergraduates. In too many departments postgraduates are seen as an add-on that lecturers have to manage somehow on top of undergraduates. And there is widespread agreement that supervision given to PhD students can be poor in the worst cases.

The other big debate is about the proliferation of postgraduate courses and the names used to describe them. There are currently 15,000 degree programmes. In a report two years ago Professor Martin Harris, the outgoing chairman of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, called for the mess of qualifications to be cleaned up. The Quality Assurance Agency has now produced proposals for a new framework for postgraduate qualifications. Most higher education bodies support these, according to the QAA. But there are some dissenters, notably Oxford and Cambridge who object to losing their traditional MAs.

The only person to sound a note of warning is the employers' representative, Carl Gilleard. There are dangers in people who stay on a Masters for lack of anything better to do, he says. "Simply to gain further letters after your name is a guarantee of nothing. I have had postgraduates standing in front of me who have utterly failed to convince me that the experience was of any great merit in making them more employable." You have been warned.

e-mail: lucy@scribbl.demon.co.uk

The conference `Postgraduates: the management challenge' is at the Hotel Russell, Russell Square, London WC1, today from 9.45 to 5 pm. Call 0171- 240-9393 or details

`IF I HAD GONE HOME TO LIVE WITH MY PARENTS I WOULD HAVE GONE ROUND THE BEND'

NAOMI GRIMLEY, 22, decided to study for a Masters degree during her final year at University College, Oxford, where she was reading history. She is now finishing a one-year taught MA in contemporary British history at Queen Mary and Westfield College, part of the University of London.

"I HADN'T got anything fixed up jobwise during my final year at Oxford. However, I realised that I needed something to keep me mentally stimulated.

I wasn't sure if I wanted to carry on in academia, so a Masters was a way of keeping my options open. Also I was quite keen to come to London to see what that was like and to get to know a university apart from Oxford. I had other friends doing the same thing. I was hoping that another qualification would help distinguish me from other people. Nowadays so many people have a degree that it's useful to say you have done some proper research-based work.

I decided on that particular course because it is taught by Professor Peter Hennessy among others. I had come across his books on Whitehall and the constitution and he seemed a lively, colourful character. There are so many postgraduate courses that it's hard to make a choice.

Funding was a problem. I didn't get funding from the British Academy as I had hoped. But I had parents who were prepared to see the Masters as an investment. They have helped me with the costs - the tuition fees of around pounds 2,000 and the living expenses.

In addition, during my final year at Oxford I took out a student loan and put that into a savings account. I was also given some money from a hardship fund at Queen Mary and Westfield, which helped me out at a bad moment.

The MA has enabled me to broaden my interests. If I had gone to live at home with my parents after my first degree, I think I would have gone round the bend. The Masters has worked well. At first it was a nice steady pace. It has become more hectic towards the end of the year. I had time to read the books I wanted. I haven't had the pressure of a weekly essay as I did at Oxford. The best thing for me has been doing coursework and getting my teeth into things, going to the Public Records Office and archives.

It's given me another year to mature. It's got me better adjusted to London and I have another string to my bow. I am now looking for a job. I think the MA has prepared me for work in journalism or for political research or a think tank."

Interview by Lucy Hodges

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