The British, it seems, are becoming a nation of postgraduates - or a nation that educates overseas students at postgraduate level. People are falling over one another to sign up for Masters degrees in international finance or management, economics or health studies, with which they hope to burnish their CVs. But they are also getting seriously academic, enrolling for PhDs in the mapping of the sea bed or English local history, because they are passionate about finding out more about subjects that interest them.
It is well known that the number of undergraduates in the UK has increased hugely. But postgraduate numbers have grown at an even greater rate, according to new figures published by the UK Council for Graduate Education. In 1982 there were 102,000 postgraduates, representing 11.8 per cent of the student population. Ten years later, that had grown to 220,000 or 15.2 per cent, and 20 years later it stood at 470,000 or 22.5 per cent. The postgraduate market has become big business for universities.
The great thing about postgraduate courses is that universities have been able to charge what they like for them and to recruit the numbers they see fit. There is no government ceiling either on fees or on numbers.
The University of Warwick charges £4,600 for a taught Master's; overseas students pay almost double that. Leicester, the university with the largest number of postgraduate students in the UK, charges a similar amount. But the London School of Economics is able to ask home students to pay £7,782 and overseas students £11,442 for an MSc in economic history. All of which shows that the global postgraduate marketplace is buoyant enough to help British universities to stay afloat. New Master's degrees are being introduced annually and most "old" universities now have graduate schools.
But at last week's annual meeting of the UK Council for Graduate Education, concern was expressed about whether the bandwagon would continue to roll once top-up fees arrived in 2006. There are signs of a falling-off in the number of home students taking taught Master's and PhDs, according to Professor Susan Bassnett of the University of Warwick. The reason is thought to be the introduction of the flat-rate tuition fee for undergraduates in 1998 and the abolition of the grant, which means that students are building up big debts. That puts them off enrolling for a Master's degree and then moving on to a doctorate.
At Warwick, postgraduate numbers are holding up in the directly vocational areas - in MBAs, business, economics and international law. In the humanities field, numbers are steady in cultural policy, a degree which trains people in theatre management. But in Professor Bassnett's own area, translation and comparative literature, they are only holding up because of overseas students.
Professor Richard Sykes, rector of Imperial College London, points out that there is a glut of MBA degrees globally. "Registration is down by 30 per cent across the world," he says. For that reason, Imperial is trying to differentiate its MBAs from those offered by other institutions. The idea is to capitalise on its strength in science, technology and medicine and to offer people with those backgrounds some business training.
Postgraduate degrees in education have been affected by the downturn in the domestic market, according to Professor Diana Leonard of the Institute of Education at London University. "We used to recruit a lot of Master's students, but increasingly they are not doing this after their first degree," she says. "The result is that we're not going to be able to get the people we want to do doctoral studies. We're not going to be able to have the kind of vibrant research community that we do at the moment."
The thinking is that the situation will deteriorate further once top-up fees come in. Dr Pam Denicolo, director of the graduate school at the University of Reading, believes that students with increasing accumulated debt could well be deterred from undertaking Master's courses. "Will undergraduates be able to afford to go on to a Master's?" she asks. The implication is that they won't.
What could happen, she says, is that the age profile of postgraduates will change. As it is, large numbers of postgraduates are not the youthful 21-year-olds that many fondly imagine. Many are over 40, and some older than that. The latest figures show that more than two-thirds (69.8 per cent) of all part-time postgraduates are over 30. "Maybe in the future that number will increase as people pay off their debts first and then go back to graduate study," she says.
Other experts are more optimistic. Professor Malcolm Macrae, from the University of Warwick, says that the effect of top-up fees will take a long time to show up. That's because the first cohort of those paying the new fees will not come through the system until 2009.
In any case, he thinks the most important factor for the health of the postgraduate market is not top-up fees but the state of the economy. In good times, demand for postgraduate courses declines because people don't have to gain an extra qualification to differentiate themselves in a competitive marketplace. So, if the economy is as good in 2009 as it is now, that might not be good for the postgraduate market, particularly as young people will be facing the prospect of paying back top-up fees. But if the economy is less healthy, the postgraduate market might look up.
Professor Bob Burgess, vice-chancellor of the University of Leicester, believes that higher education should respond to top-up fees by thinking ingeniously about how to deliver graduate education. Why, for example, does it have to be done in blocks of four years for a part-time or three years for a full-time doctorate, or, for a Master's, one year for a full-time and two years for a part-time degree? "Why can't you have modules that you build up over a period?" he asks. "Why can't you have some courses online and some face to face? Why can't you mix and match distance learning and online education?" Some universities are already looking at whether to introduce such reforms. Changes such as these will keep the home postgraduates coming in. But, in the end, students will decide whether to stay on at university to do a postgraduate degree according to how much extra they think they will earn as a result.
"I don't see that that premium will change with the introduction of top-up fees," says Sir Howard Newby, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council. "It may be that postgraduate stipends would have to increase. But there is no evidence elsewhere in the world where deferred-payment fees have been introduced that they have had an effect on postgraduate numbers."
'YOU NEED TO HAVE A REAL DESIRE TO STUDY'
Angela McShane-Jones is the new face of the postgraduate student. At the age of 45 she is in her sixth year of a part-time PhD in the history of political popular music in the 17th century at the University of Warwick and expects to have it finished in September. The research has taken her this long because she has combined it with being a single mother to her 16-year-old son and working as a part-time lecturer.
Her research has attracted considerable attention. She is particularly proud that The Sun devoted page three to her discovery of a popular ballad to Queen Mary, the wife of William of Orange, which was accompanied by a picture of Queen Mary with completely bare breasts. (It was the fashion at the time for women to go around bare-breasted.)
When she embarked on her PhD, McShane-Jones also started a counselling course because she thought that, if the degree didn't work out, she could become a counsellor. In the event she fell in love with history.
"I discovered I could write. I didn't know that. I could do research, and the university has been fantastic. The Department gave me some lecturing. It has been really hard. I have never been so stressed in my life. It has been the hardest thing I have ever done but the most valuable. I might end up poor and destitute but when I die at least I will be able to wave my PhD and The Sun article in the air and say 'I did that'.
"There have been times, though, when I have thought: 'I have to stop this because it's too much and there's no security.'"
Martin Wright, an inspector with the West Midlands police, is on the point of completing a PhD on why people feel so reassured by having two-way radios with which to communicate with their neighbours. Having done a first degree and a Masters degree part-time, he has now done a part-time PhD at the University of Leicester. "I did it as part of my search for knowledge," he says. "I needed to understand what was taking place, why it was that people were happier if they were given two-way radios."
The degree has taken five years and the cost has been met by the Association of British Insurers, which gave him money for the fees and for books. It takes immense time, energy and commitment to undertake a degree at the same time as holding down a full-time job, says Wright.
"You need to have a real desire to study at that level," he says.Reuse content