In recent months, universities have been thrown into turmoil with news of spending cuts and that student fees will rise up to £9,000 a year from 2012. But what will this mean for postgraduates? How easy will it be for tomorrow's graduates to fund a Masters course? Will scholarships for PhD students dry up? Will the same wide range of postgraduate courses be available? And what will any changes at this level mean to the future of our universities, our professions and the economy at large?
One thing seems certain. For now, postgraduate study will continue to flourish. The UK's reputation is strong globally, the sector generates £1.5bn a year in fees, numbers on Masters courses have surged by an astonishing 27 per cent in recent years, and in a difficult job market, many are choosing to extend their qualifications.
This is a wise thing to do, according to recent research published by the British Library and the Higher Education Policy Institute, showing that three and a half years after graduation, 94 per cent of postgraduates find work in the professions, compared to 78 per cent of undergraduates.
Jonathon Bell, 26, has learned this for himself. After doing a craft-based degree in ceramics at the University of Brighton, then trying his hand at sales and marketing, he went to Middlesex University to do an MSc in design engineering. "I decided I wasn't going anywhere and wanted to get into renewable energy technology, but I knew I needed to get the basics first. There was a lot of maths and that was a struggle, but my thesis on optimising propulsion systems in unguided aerial vehicles is being published and I've been even invited to a conference in Taiwan. Now I'm looking for data analyst posts and already had a few interviews.
"It's cost me about £8,500, but it's well worth it – if anyone had told me a year ago I'd be doing all this I'd never have believed them."
Michael Driscoll, the vice chancellor of Middlesex University, says: "Things for us here have held up very well over the past two or three years."
He adds: "There have been the counter-cyclical effects of people losing their jobs, or feeling they need re-treads, and professional courses linked to careers, in areas like information technology and health, are doing very well, and international demand has held up across the board."
However, like other university leaders, he knows there are hard times ahead. "Inevitably, institutions will be looking to rationalise courses, and subjects at the margins at Masters level will go. Some courses which are currently subsidised by other areas are bound to decline."
Professor Steve West, the vice chancellor of the University of the West of England, says future students "are likely to be very focused on what will give them the skill sets they are looking for. They will be seeking out vocational professional programmes, not an MA in history." However, key vocational funding streams are in doubt, he points out. No one knows how teacher training will be supported in the future, "and I don't see how local health authorities will be able to carry on funding their training budgets in the same way."
What seems likely, he says, is that more people will do their Masters degree slowly, over time, fitting it around work and other commitments and funding it a module or two at a time.
Professor West says: "Universities are certainly going to be looking at their portfolios. At the end of the day it will be a question of what the market is prepared to pay for."
However, Dr Chris Bilton, the director of the centre for cultural policy studies at the University of Warwick, which runs three culture, creative and media MA courses, sees danger in too narrowly vocational a view of postgraduate study. "Our students are very market-focused, but I believe our job as educators is to provide some value to students beyond the job market. I want to equip them to transform their industry, not just to churn out people able to fit into it."
Paul Wellings, chairman of the 1994 Group of smaller research-intensive universities, and vice chancellor of Lancaster University, says: "We have been focused so hard on the home undergraduate market that we haven't looked at the connection to the market in post-graduate provision. We were disappointed Lord Browne's review on student funding didn't pick up the opportunity to look at postgraduate provision more closely."
His concerns include disappearing public funding, the fact that fewer students might be able to fund higher-level studies in areas such as the law, or business and management, "whether the supply chain for academics will be dislocated" and increased visa restrictions for international students "which would mean our research base could be squeezed hard."
But Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, representing top research-based universities, believes that concentrating research resources – a likely result of future research cuts – could bring benefits.
"The evidence suggests that PhD students thrive in research-intensive environments and that backing institutions with a critical mass of research activity benefits the graduate students, as well as being the most productive way to fund research."
All commentators agree that blended and distance learning courses are increasingly likely to figure in the postgraduate landscape, and that rising student debts and plunging government support could make the postgraduate sector increasingly the preserve of the wealthy – especially as the postgraduate student population tends to reflect the make-up of the undergraduate one.
Paul Wakely, an education studies lecturer at the University of York, who has studied access to postgraduate courses, says: "It's really anyone's guess what the new levels of student debt will mean.
"Studies have shown that debt per se has not seemed to be a deterrent to study. The postgraduate sector is much more varied than the undergraduate one, so no one knows what the future will bring."
There could even be a whole new population of financially secure older students stepping forward to shore up beleagured arts and minority courses.
"If your passion is, say, medieval beekeeping," says Professor West, " you're unlikely to be able to go and study it straight out of university. But in thirty years' time, a part-time post-graduate courses in medieval beekeeping might be just what you're looking for."
'I knew I had to do this'
Marilena Gill, 34, is juggling her studies for a postgraduate diploma in environmental health at the University of the West of England in a way that increasing numbers of students will do so in the future.
“I’m doing it part-time, I’ve just started my second year and I’m doing it over three years. I started it because I was working for a local authority and knew I had to do this if I wanted to be an environmental health officer. I work part-time for a food manufacturer, teach two days a week and I have two young children. But I love it and my day at university is ‘me time’.
“I’ve had some help with funding, but it’ll cost over £6,000. I’m paying as I go, but I’d never have been able to do it full-time, and if the fees had been much more it would have marked me out.”