Marilyn, Elvis and so much more

Twenty years ago a Masters degree was an exotic appendage of the élite. Now everyone is signing up
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The Independent Online

Increasingly, the Masters degree is becoming just another stage in what we are learning to call "lifelong learning". It has come down from its academic pedestal. Thirty years ago, when only one in 20 people had a first degree, a Masters singled you out as part of an academic élite. Today, more than 20,000 postgraduate courses are on offer in the UK, and there are more than 400,000 postgraduate students – a fifth of the entire student population, and four times as many as 10 years ago.

So, to be part of the academic élite, you now need to go further, and study for a degree that involves original research. These days, the owner of a Masters degree is likely to be like Leander Sanderson, 29, who completed her MA in education at the Open University last year and says: "It wasn't about career development, but expanding my knowledge."

At the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), where she works, she says: "I spend a lot of time preaching the value of lifelong learning, and I thought I ought to practise what I preached." The Council – the quango that looks after further education and lifelong learning – agreed, and paid her fees.

Others are looking for a career boost. They may study for a qualification in law or accountancy, or they may take degrees in business and economics to help them to become highly paid executives. Stella Constantinou, 25, who recently completed an MA in marketing management at Middlesex University, won a salary boost of 30 per cent, working in European marketing. The degree may not have been the main reason for the hike, but it gave her confidence, she says, and enabled her to write a topical 20,000 word dissertation on the fall in profits in Marks & Spencer's womenswear.

As Masters degrees become more popular, they also get more populist, with a bewildering array of courses. They can be called MA, MPhil, MSc (Master of Science), M Ed (Master of Education) or – the great academic expansion area of the Eighties – MBA, which stands for Master of Business Administration. Think of something that interests you, and there's probably a Masters degree in it.

Perhaps the most eclectic array is at the Open University (OU). There, dissertation subjects chosen by recent students on the MA in popular culture include Elvis Presley, the film roles of Alec Guinness, and Punch magazine cartoons. Subjects for history MA students include rowing on the Thames, British cinema comedy, and Marilyn Monroe (the last offered by a male student of 75).

The Open University has 185 postgraduate courses and 27,642 postgraduate students, and awards 3,000 higher degrees each year. A quarter of them are sponsored in whole or part by the student's employer. London's Institute of Education runs more than 60 masters courses in education, apart from the teaching qualification, the Postgraduate Certificate in Education. Its masters courses include education management and administration and educational psychology as well as history in education, modern languages in education, and geography in education.

Then there is the extraordinary array of MBAs at UK business schools. At the end of the Sixties, when it was first imported into Britain from the United States, the MBA was strange and exotic. Now, when the Open University Business School alone has just graduated its 10,000th MBA student, you can choose to do a specialist MBA in almost any area of business you choose.

There's a new specialist MBA for engineers in Manchester. City University offers specialist courses in finance, and there's a new MBA in financial management offered by Manchester and Bangor universities. Aspiring business moguls can study entrepreneurship at Imperial College London or the Judge Business School in Cambridge, and those who still think they will make their first million online can take a specialist Warwick MBA in e-business, for which they will study (naturally) online.

None of these will make you part of the academic élite. For that you need to move on to the next stage – a doctorate, for which genuinely original research will be required. Once again, the most eclectic range of options is probably to be found at the OU. Recent research projects include conservation planning in the Antarctic, the geochemistry of Mount Misery volcano, and the effects of neurological impairment due to cerebral palsy.

More than 90 universities offer research degrees related to education, ranging from English Language teaching and applied linguistics at the University of East Anglia, lifelong learning at Leeds, to business and computer education at Strathclyde. More than 40 universities offer a Doctorate in Education.

It is much easier to find the right course than to find funding, which is why two thirds of Britain's postgraduates are studying part-time. The average fee for a one-year Masters is £2,740, and you can pay a great deal more. At the London School of Economics, fees last year were £5,712.

The most important sources of funding for postgraduate students in the UK are the Research Councils and the Arts and Humanities Research Board. Some postgraduates go for a career-development loan, or appeal to a charity. From 2001, the Economic and Social Research Council will no longer be funding stand-alone Masters degrees. To get public money to pay your fees and to live, social science Masters-degree students will need to be on four-year programmes with a research element.