Postgraduate numbers, though, continue to rise. Provisional figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency indicate that 150,000 students enrolled on Master's courses "not mainly by research" in 1995. Overall, numbers rose by some 4 per cent, with most of the new students taking MA or MSc qualifications.
Graduates account for 10 per cent of students at many universities; the figure is close to 50 per cent at the London School of Economics, Oxford and Cambridge. Master's courses are attracting ever higher numbers, despite a lack of grants. There are over 7,000 separate MA or MSc courses on offer in the UK. The expansion in numbers is greater than might be expected. Until recently, only a small percentage of students went on to take a higher degree in order to obtain specialist or vocational knowledge, or as preparation for a career in academia or research.
But with a first degree becoming common currency in the job market, graduates are looking for ways to add skills and make themselves stand out in the job market. This accounts for at least part of the growth in Master's enrolments. "With far larger numbers of graduates, people feel the need to distinguish themselves from people with first degrees," says John Hogan, secretary of the UK Council for Graduate Education and academic registrar at Durham University.
Catherine Rogers, head of student recruitment and admission at Southampton University, sees a similar trend. "With the expansion of higher education, students feel the need for greater distinction," she says. "In the employment market, there is a perception that they need to add to the qualifications they have got."
Academics doubt this is good enough reason for taking a Master's. Taught Master's courses are expensive, costing around pounds 2,600 for the full year. They are also intensive, and require a great deal of commitment. Postgraduates work throughout the academic year, with only short breaks during vacations. So anyone taking a further degree because they want to extend the student lifestyle risks wasting their time and their money.
Some employers are looking for something more than a first degree can offer. Fields such as computing change rapidly, and graduates may want to specialise further than they could as undergraduates. Similar arguments apply to degrees tailored for the financial sector, where increasingly sophisticated markets need highly trained minds. There has also been considerable growth in qualifications for health workers, at least partially as a result of management changes within the national health service.
General arts students may find a Master's degree offers them less. Employers are becoming more open to graduates with further degrees, but few express a preference for applicants with a second degree for general vacancies. Instead, the emphasis is on skills relevant to the job.
This does not mean applicants should not take a Master's course in the arts or humanities. There are several sound academic reasons for doing so. Degrees with a strong business bias can offer a more secure route to employment, as will "conversion courses", which prepare graduates with a non-vocational degree for more technical work. Increasingly, students considering a research degree in the humanities and social sciences are using a Master's degree as research training. Most Master's courses contain a substantial dissertation - excellent preparation for a PhD.
Growth in postgraduate study is being made easier by flexible degree programmes. A vast range of courses are available part-time, and flexible, credit-based learning makes it easier to mix options from different programmes, or even move between universities.
There has been a corresponding increase in vocational or professional courses at Master's level, as universities respond to the needs of graduates who want to return to education 10, 20 or even 30 years into their careers. Demand for these programmes can only increase as the proportion of the population with a first degree rises.
"A lot of Master's degrees are geared towards people returning to higher education, or obtaining a qualification after a gap," says Dr Hogan. New techniques such as distance learning or computer-aided teaching will make it easier for people in work to take a higher degree.
At Sunderland University, as many as three quarters of postgraduates study part time; Sunderland's figures are not unusual. "Part-time study is the highest proportion of postgraduates and the area most likely to grow," says Molly Temple, pro-vice-chancellor. "People want very flexible postgraduate programmes."
Sunderland has degrees for pharmacists and healthcare specialists. Computing and information systems are also popular. Most candidates are in work; many are in their late twenties or thirties. Students enrol to refresh their professional knowledge, and learn techniques that were not available when they took their degrees.
With rising fees, limited grants, and the prospect of government restrictions on undergraduate numbers being extended to postgraduate courses, the part- time professional programme is where many universities see the future of higher degrees. Students, too, can learn from this trend. A Master's alone is not a short-cut to a job, but it can be an excellent mid-career step.Reuse content