Exeter University has cut MA courses - and doubled student numbers

Since 2001 Exeter's classics, modern languages, and English departments have slashed the number of MA courses on offer from 10 to three, and in the process nearly doubled their student numbers. The secret: modular masters.

Under the scheme programmes built up by academics in their speciality are kept, but as optional papers in catch-all masters courses. With less money being spent administering the programmes, cash is available to invest where it matters most, in teaching students, and areas which could not previously have supported a whole masters course are opened up to students as modules. Since modularising the English department's MAs, Exeter has been able to expand teaching from two main streams to six.

While universities benefit from lower costs, students gain from greater choice. "Ten years ago there weren't so many people doing MAs, so courses could be smaller and less systematic," says Professor Stephen Mitchell, Director of Exeter's Centre for Hellenistic Culture. "More students and greater competition between universities mean that we're now offering students not only a specialised path but also greater breadth if they want it."

One student who has taken advantage is Lee Pretlove, 21. After graduating with a BA in classical studies from Exeter last year, Pretlove became one of the first wave of masters students on the new modular programme. Next year he will start a PhD on constructing Roman identity through myths. Because the MA is modular Pretlove has been able to study Neronian literature as well as Roman myth. "With Nero you have the fire of Rome and the myths surrounding that," he says. "So when you study Nero you're seeing a myth in the making."

Like many undergraduates Pretlove wanted to explore his subject further after graduating but found the prospect of going straight into research daunting. "The modular MA is ideal if you want to have a taste of higher academic work but you have trouble getting on with work without the structure of an undergraduate course," he says. "It's still quite a jump, but with the modular degree you have more structure."

Masters courses are, of course, not just for proto-academics like Pretlove. Many students are there to develop their careers, whether in education or engineering. King's College London runs 10 MAs in education. Students can take modules from across the different courses, so you are able, for instance, to specialise in management while learning more about the best ways to teach your subject.

"That flexibility was one major reason for me coming to Kings'," says Arunabh Singh, 21, a teacher from India on the education management MA. "You're here for a year so you don't want to get stuck with something you don't want to do."

A new breed of even more flexible masters courses are emerging where you don't even need to get stuck in one subject. Instead students can mix and match modules from different departments and different universities, and even get modules tailor-made for their needs. Learn Direct has been pioneering this approach, in collaboration with nine universities across the country, through its work-based learning scheme.

It's distance learning but not as the Open University (OU) know it. John Blundell, 51, did his first degree, in maths, through the OU and is now completing an MSc with Learn Direct. "This has been much better," he says. "I've been able to structure it to my needs, and because it's so closely linked with what I'm doing at work I've been able to use the knowledge I've gained straight away."

Blundell's MSc in Combustion, Fuels, and Performance Modelling has been built by him and the University of Derby, and includes modules in maths and computer language Java, alongside tailor-made modules examining how to optimise the efficiency of burning coal. With such versatile options on offer there may soon be not only fewer proscribed masters courses, but none at all, and in their stead a vast proliferation of courses designed by students.

But for those tempted by the new Masters courses Professor Mitchell of Exeter University has some sound advice: don't be bamboozled by innovation for it's own sake. "For my money the real attraction of our MA course is not that it's modular, but that teachers are teaching what they're interested in, enthusing students and giving them the best possible tuition." he says. "That will ensure our success."