Anne-Marie Martin: Half a million people must be right

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The Independent Online

Asking whether postgraduate qualifications are worth doing is a bit like asking whether food tastes nice. It really does depend on a range of factors. After all, even a lukewarm greasy steak and gristle pie can taste like the nectar of the gods if you have been freezing on the terraces through a poor football match.

Postgraduate study has never been more popular. In 2004 there were over half a million postgraduate students in UK Universities. In the past five years the demand for postgraduate courses has risen by 41 per cent compared to a mere 8 per cent for first degrees. Individuals choose to undertake higher qualifications for a number of reasons - because they enjoy their subject, like studying, want to pursue a particular angle of their studies in much greater depth, want to work in countries where higher qualifications are the norm, want to stand out in the hunt for jobs, or want to change direction in their careers and need evidence to prove that they are serious. Provided prospective students research the courses well and really check out that they are going to meet their needs by, for example, talking to the appropriate professional association to ascertain that the qualification really will help them move into a particular occupational area or asking the institution for a breakdown of where the previous year's qualifiers have ended up, then all will be well. Even more so than first degrees, postgraduate qualifications must be chosen by the individual for the individual on the basis of sound research and information.

Those that are considering postgraduate study because they don't know what they want to do should perhaps pause and contemplate whether another one to three years of accruing debt in the process is going to make any difference to their inability to make decisions. It will however make a difference if they actually engage with career choice whilst they're studying but the fact that they didn't during their previous three years bodes ill. As for those who decide on a research degree for no other reason than that their tutors suggest it, they should perhaps contemplate firstly whether their tutor might have had an ulterior motive and secondly that it isn't their tutor who is going to spend the next three years studying.

When chosen wisely postgraduate study is a good investment. A mere 3.4 per cent report themselves as unemployed six months after they graduate compared to 5.8 per cent of those with undergraduate degrees. Attainment at postgraduate level can be a passport to international jobs but more and more people are actually choosing to pursue their study overseas. Many UK Universities have international partner institutions in order to facilitate student exchange. Until relatively recently when asked about "The Bologna Process" my answer might well have included garlic and tomato sauce for this European jewel has gone largely unheralded. On 19 June 1999, 30 European nations signed The Bologna Declaration and pledged themselves to a process designed to create an attractive, competitive European Higher Education Area. They promised: to create a system of academic grades which are easy to read and compare and to introduce a "diploma supplement" (a record of achievement designed to improve international "transparency" and facilitate academic and professional recognition of qualifications); to deliver a system essentially based on two cycles - a first cycle geared to the employment market and lasting at least three years (first degree) and a second cycle (Master) conditional upon the completion of the first cycle; to create a common system of accumulation and transfer of credits; to encourage the mobility of students, teachers and researchers; and to co-operate with quality assurance.

Work has been going on since and the nations have met every two years to refine and update their aims. In 2003, it was decided to speed up the process by setting short-term targets. Thus, by now, all signatory countries should have adopted a two-cycle system; issued the diploma supplement to all their graduates free of charge and made a start on introducing a quality assurance system. There are now 45 countries signed up and working towards this easily comparable, transportable degree system but there's a long way to go before people will be able to take one module of their Masters in England, one in Germany and another in Azerbaijan but eventually they will. In the meantime those interested in studying abroad will have to talk directly to institutions overseas or to ask home universities about their international links.

As well as choosing what and where to study the other major obstacle can be funding. There are a remarkable number of scholarships and trust funds available, many of which go untapped. At the Postgraduate Study and Training Fair in Islington on 26 January there will be seminars and one to one advice on funding streams as well as the funding wall - well worth a detour.

The writer is Director, The Careers Group, University of London