Masters degrees in economics: How to be a leader of the future

Universities want their economics students to become the greatest, so a huge rebranding process is under way. James Morrison reports

If there is such a thing as a breeding ground for "masters of the universe" it is surely to be found in the economics departments of major universities. From the directors of billion dollar corporations to world leaders such as Italian prime minister Romano Prodi and South African president Thabo Mbeki, the leading British and Irish faculties boast an embarrassment of alumni that reads like a roll call of the rich and powerful.

Such is the pride many institutions invest in their economics postgraduate programmes that, in recent years, they have become engaged in extraordinarily competitive "re-branding" of their Masters options.

Most now place a marked emphasis on the primacy of mathematics: a reflection of the growing demands for statistical literacy in high-ranking jobs in the private, voluntary and public sectors. Gone are the days of philosophical debates about the relative merits of monetarism and Keynesianism. In their place are intensive practical workshops on econometrics (statistics in layman's speak), spreadsheets and quantitative analysis.

As Dr Patrick Paul Walsh, who heads the economics MSc at Trinity College Dublin, explains: "In the world today, there's a huge amount of rich micro data to be handled, and that's what employers increasingly want from Masters graduates.

If you have maths as a "language", you will catch on pretty quickly to the rest of what you go on to study. If you're an "ideas man" in the old-fashioned macro-economic sense, that doesn't work so well any more."

Unlike many universities, Trinity accepts graduates with non-economics degrees on to its MSc without requiring them to undertake costly conversion courses. It does, however, expect them to have first class honours - or, as Dr Walsh puts it, a provable "first class quantitative ability". At a mere 4,000 Euros (around £2,750), the Trinity MSc is a snip compared to its rivals.

But Dr Walsh insists it's more rigorous than most, and offers the perfect balance of a solid career passport in its own right and, for the most academically able, a "feeder" into the university's highly respected PhD programme.

The MSc's retention rate is impressive: a third of students progress to the full PhD programme - buoyed, no doubt, by Dr Walsh's advice that a Masters alone can be a "golden dead-end": "You might start out on 45,000 to 50,000 Euros a year, but if you look at the guys who become the big company vice-presidents, they have PhDs."

Oxford and Cambridge, whose alumni include the father of fiscal policy, John Maynard Keynes, are also styling their Masters as springboards to doctorate degrees. Like the Trinity MSc, two-thirds of whose students are from overseas, the Cambridge MPhil boasts a glowing global profile, with 60 per cent of its current contingent hailing from outside the European Union.

Ken Coutts, the faculty's assistant research director, believes the popularity of the course - at £13,000-plus, four times dearer than Trinity's - derives from the unrivalled access students are given to staff with international reputations.

"All our professors and readers are directly involved in delivering the course," he explains. "Many of our graduates go on to work for the major international financial institutions like the World Bank and the IMF, and those from overseas often go back to take up posts in their own central banks."

Esteemed Masters courses are also offered by Warwick and the London School of Economics, whose alumni include nine Nobel Prize winners, among them Friedrich von Hayek, author of seminal 1944 anti-communist tract The Road to Serfdom.

The latter's MSc in Economics can be taken as a straight taught option over either one or two years, or a research degree, with full-time fees for both home and overseas students pegged at a cool £14,760 for home and EU students.

Successful applicants require firsts in their undergraduate degrees, and, again, particular emphasis is placed on mathematical ability. Before the programme proper starts in October, candidates must attend introductory courses in statistics and econometrics. Similar technical expertise is required of candidates on City University's MScs in Business Economics and International Business Economics, which costs home students £8,990 and non-EU applicants a shade under £10,000.

Those who can handle the pressure tend to find it worth the effort: success parachutes most graduates into fast-track jobs as £40,000-a-year trainee merchant bankers or City analysts. Professor Keith Pilbeam, director of the university's MSc in business economics and international business economics, says of the degrees' emphasis: "Economics can sometimes seem mathematical and a bit boring, but this course relates the subject to real-life practical situations, such as how do we finance the London Underground?" One of a handful of British institutions to offer an MA in economics is the University of Sussex.

It boasts two distinctive variants on the standard "formula": Masters in international economics and development economics. But any applicant who anticipates being let off maths is in for a shock.

"We place a big emphasis on development-related issues at Sussex, so the students we attract have a social conscience and aren't usually here for big bucks City jobs, but to work for NGOs and charities," says head of economics Andrew Newell. "But when they see we're calling the courses MAs and ask, 'does that mean we don't have to do econometrics', I'm afraid the answer's no."

MA student Huw Talbot, 30, whose first degree was in philosophy and psychology, forcing him to pass a nine-month diploma to qualify for the MA, says he has been surprised to find the statistics the most enjoyable part of his course.

"I worked for the World Bank before applying for the MA and really enjoyed the economics side of things, but I took this course because I wanted to go on to do a PGCE and become an economics teacher," he explains. "The aspect I've enjoyed most is econometrics, and I'm now thinking of working for the Government or doing a PhD. If a decent research job came up in the City, I wouldn't rule that out either."

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