With 21,000 more people starting postgraduate courses in this academic year - a 16 per cent increase over the previous year - uptake of higher degree courses is now expanding faster than undergraduate entry.
The sharpest rise is in the new universities, where part-time registrations have soared by 31 per cent and full-time entries by 22 per cent, compared to a 9 per cent growth in both full and part-time numbers in the old universities. The boom follows a decade of steady growth, mainly in the old universities, in which the number of higher degree graduates rose by 60 per cent.
By subject area, the biggest increases are in art and design, education, the built environment, medicine and related subjects, science and engineering.
Some of the expansion is supply-led. Oxford and Cambridge universities have both taken policy decisions to resist government pressure to expand undergraduate numbers and are concentrating instead on extending their postgraduate provision where possible.
Duncan McCallum, dean of the Cambridge board of graduate studies, says his university's rationale for this is to enhance its research base and build on its relative success in the research selectivity exercise.
The fastest expansion is in one-year MPhil courses that comprise both teaching and independent research in varying proportions.
In the past five years Cambridge has set up some fifteen such courses, in fields ranging from medieval history to semi-conductor physics, and applications for this type of course have far outstripped research degrees.
'These MPhil courses give students a chance to decide whether they want to carry on with research, and students feel they may be better placed as far as employment is concerned at the end. Studentships for one-year courses are also better protected than for three-year PhDs,' Mr McCallum says.
Academics also favour the one-year MPhil, he explains, because it offers a convenient opportunity to teach research skills and assess students' ability to cope with a PhD. In the social sciences and the humanities, the research councils now insist that postgraduates are given formal training in research skills as a condition of particular degrees being approved for their studentships. (Cambridge was spectacularly blacklisted by the Economic and Social Research Council in 1989 for failing to meet the council's Ph D completion requirements.)
John Stoddard, Vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, which has the highest research rating of the new universities, says much of its postgraduate growth is due to part-time provision and close links with employers which has made postgraduate study more widely available. 'It's demand-led, but the expansion is partly the result of 'qualification drift',' he says. 'There are various professional bodies whose trainees we would previously have taught towards a qualifying exam and they are now saying that such courses could be recognised by a postgraduate qualification. Part-time postgraduate work may develop into full-time courses with sponsorship from the company involved.'
He says the new universities have not secured a higher share of bursaries from the research councils, but some full-time postgraduate conversion courses, particularly in new technology, were sponsored by the Training and Enterprise councils and the Department of Employment. At the other extreme, part-time provision is fanning demand for 'non-vocational' masters level courses from mature students wanting to cultivate their personal interests. The emerging pattern at Sheffield Hallam is for linked masters and postgraduate diploma courses to be offered across 12 vocationally oriented postgraduate schools. Typical offerings are MScs in biomedical technology and in surface engineering, and MAs in forensic psychiatric nursing and in health policy. 'It is post-experience, postgraduate and professional training that fits very neatly into the remit of the (former) polytechnics,' Mr Stoddard says.
The expansion coincides with a decline in the proportion of postgraduates who enter academic research and teaching and so is creating a fast-growing supply of postgraduates to the labour market. To date, however, there is little evidence of this causing 'inflation' in the value of degrees, with higher degrees supplanting honours as the main selection criterion for entry to higher-status jobs as graduate unemployment swells.
The 1992 Graduate Review by the Institute of Manpower Studies found 'little explicit demand for those with postgraduate qualifications outside certain applied science areas and higher education'. The exceptions were in the life sciences, especially areas such as biotechnology, where there was a discrete demand for those with masters degrees and PhDs and parallel high initial unemployment rates among first-degree graduates; and in information technology, where there had been a strong demand for graduates with masters degrees, especially those qualifying via conversion courses sponsored by the Science and Engineering Research Council. But demand for PhDs in information technology had been low.
Indifference to higher study peaked in the social sciences, where employers explained that where they did recruit postgraduates 'it was because they liked the individual, not necessarily because of the qualification'. 'For most employers the time spent on a doctorate was seen as less relevant than an equivalent period of work experience,' the researchers concluded.
The Association of Graduate Recruiters' 1993 salary and vacancy survey, published this month, confirmed the IMS findings. 'Telephone interviews revealed that unless a higher degree was vocationally related to the position being filled, it was usually ignored. Indeed some recruiters suggested a non-vocational higher degree could be a handicap to recruitment,' the AGR reported. This attitude - which would be considered high insanity in the United States, where a masters degree is regarded as a respectable minimum in most managerial and professional jobs, or in Germany, where the average first degree terminates at the equivalent of the UK masters level - is reflected in salary levels.
A study of graduates in the 1980s across all subjects found that there was no general financial advantage to postgraduate study for those going on to work in the UK, the IMS report said.
The AGR survey showed a fall in the numbers of recruiters making distinctions in the level of starting salary by qualification; from 43 per cent in 1992 to 37 per cent this year. In the industrial sector, the AGR found that only 25 per cent of recruiters offered a salary differential to Ph Ds and 10 per cent to MAs or MScs. In the non-industrial sector, a mere 10 per cent recognise a PhD in salary levels and 7.5 per cent acknowledge an MA.
Among these, the median salary supplement offered for an MA is pounds 724, pounds 224 more than that granted to graduates with a first or those who studied on a sandwich basis. Three years' further study and a PhD attracts a median pounds 2,175 supplement.
Clearly it is not the financial rewards that are drawing more graduates into higher study, so what is the attraction? Tony Raban, director of the Cambridge University careers service, says: 'There are two interrelated pressures: one is the lack of jobs and the other is the expansion of short taught masters course. There have been places available but no concommitant increase in funding, so many students are funding themselves.'
The postgraduate boom comes as graduate unemployment reaches the highest level in a decade, exceeding 12.9 per cent in 1982, the bleakest year of the last recession. As unemployment has spiralled since 1989, so has the number of graduates going straight on to postgraduate study, rising from 8.7 per cent to over 12 per cent in 1992. Tom Snow, director of the Oxford careers service, says there is a widespread feeling of 'why not stay on, things may turn out to be better later'.
But Mr Raban is concerned that many students have false expectations that may lead to hardship and disillusionment later. 'Many students are doing masters courses that they regard as vocational but which we would not see as very useful,' he says.
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