What's hot on campus

The boom subjects today are health and computer science, says Biddy Passmore. And overseas students are coming in greater numbers than ever

How many of Britain's brightest graduates would spend their twenties living on a pittance, pondering the nature of matter or the finer points of econometrics, when they could be earning a fortune in the City, their student debts forgiven? Not surprisingly, not enough. As a recent report on the state of postgraduate education in the UK makes clear, overall demand from home students for postgraduate research places has stalled. In physics, the number of postgraduate research students is even in decline. At Warwick, one of the leading centres of economics research, the university has "for almost a decade found it almost impossible to get home students to do PhDs in economics," says Malcolm McCrae, professor of virology and until recently chair of the graduate school.

How many of Britain's brightest graduates would spend their twenties living on a pittance, pondering the nature of matter or the finer points of econometrics, when they could be earning a fortune in the City, their student debts forgiven? Not surprisingly, not enough. As a recent report on the state of postgraduate education in the UK makes clear, overall demand from home students for postgraduate research places has stalled. In physics, the number of postgraduate research students is even in decline. At Warwick, one of the leading centres of economics research, the university has "for almost a decade found it almost impossible to get home students to do PhDs in economics," says Malcolm McCrae, professor of virology and until recently chair of the graduate school.

Failure to keep pace with the big expansion (up by a fifth) in the number of UK students achieving first and upper second-class degrees suggests that the attractiveness of research study is in decline, says the report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi).

Overseas students have been more than happy to take up the available research places. The number on research degrees has gone up by 28 per cent since 1995 and they now account for two in five of the doctorates awarded. This is creating an over-reliance on overseas doctoral students, especially in science, that has "significant" implications for the country's research base, according to the report. That may lead to problems with replacing academics in certain disciplines.

Overall, however, postgraduate numbers are flourishing in the UK. There has been a growth of more than one-fifth in new entrants over the past seven years, bringing total numbers to nearly half a million. And the main reason for this is the boom in taught degrees, mainly Masters but also postgraduate certificates and diplomas.

For, as growing student debt and poor career prospects dim the attractions of traditional research, at least for home students, the number of students opting for taught courses that will give them a vocational boost is rising fast. Once again, the biggest growth is among overseas students, who now account for nearly one half of taught postgraduate students. But home numbers have been rising steadily too. Growth in taught degrees has been fastest in new universities such as Westminster (the former Polytechnic of Central London).

What are the boom subjects? Top of all comes health, where the numbers on taught courses in subjects allied to medicine, such as physiotherapy, have risen by more than 100 per cent over the past seven years, as traditional doctors' roles have been assumed by other health professionals.

Julius Weinberg, director of the Institute of Health Sciences and pro-vice-chancellor for research at City University, says nearly all of the students on these courses are home students funded by the National Health Service. "We link the taught Masters to professional development, allowing the students to build up to the full Masters over time," says Professor Weinberg. "Courses have to be very flexible. Many of these students are not on a one-year, full-time course but on day- or block-release."

Other growth areas at City University, one of the institutions that pioneered taught Masters in professional areas, are arts policy and journalism. And, despite a fall-off nationally in Masters in Business Administration (MBA) programmes, the university has seen a marked increase in numbers on specific Masters programmes within the business school in areas like finance. As Professor Weinberg points out, the university is ideally placed for that. Its prestigious John Cass Business School sits right on the edge of London's financial hub so there is much to-ing and fro-ing between students and professionals.

Close ties with practitioners also mark City's taught courses in computer studies, where demand is still growing despite the bursting of the dot.com bubble and the recent downturn in numbers at undergraduate level. In fact, postgraduate courses in computer studies rank second only to those for the paramedical professions in the recent rate of growth. Nationally, numbers have grown by more than 80 per cent since 1996, with the fastest growth among full-timers. Why is this?

Among overseas students, demand is still strong especially from China, India and South-east Asia. At home, university observers suggest that a more mature industry is beginning to realise the virtue of a higher degree of specialist training. And the recent shake-out in computing has given some of the casualties time - and money - to invest in courses to give them a competitive edge when they apply for their next job.

Apart from the Open University, Westminster has more taught postgraduates (1,250) than any other UK university and nearly a quarter of them come from overseas. In addition to business, they flock to the university's courses in computer science, media, arts, law and languages.

What, meanwhile, of the state of pure research and especially of physics? Malcolm Longair, director of the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge (the university's department of physics) is blunt about the general problem: "We need more trained scientists - in industry, in teaching...We at Cambridge are working quite hard to keep up the numbers."

Cambridge, which has far more postgraduate research students than any other UK university (6,260) and an international reputation in scientific research, still has "a good number of bright people coming through" to study for doctorates in physics, although the number of home students admitted this year fell slightly, says Professor Longair. But the national picture is worrying. The Institute of Physics is so concerned about the shortage of physics specialists that it plans to introduce means-tested bursaries of about £1,000 a year for selected undergraduates when higher fees are introduced from 2006. Peter Main, director of the Institute, points out that the problem is not really a decline in the number of undergraduates. After drifting down until the mid 1990s, the annual number of physics graduates has stabilised in recent years at about 2,500. The real problem is that so few want to go into research (let alone teaching) when they could be earning good money elsewhere.

"Physics graduates, like maths graduates, are rather in demand," he says. "With increasing debt, fewer and fewer want to go on." He points out that funding for doctorates in physics is not easy to come by - only about half win research council studentships and the rest rely on support from charity or industry or fund themselves.

"A lot go into the City," adds Professor Main. So many, in fact, that the institute now has a Physics in Finance group.

HOW TO FUND IT: STUDENTS IN PROFILE

"It will make me more employable but I also want to know more." Thus Chinaza Onuzo, 22, gives his reasons for taking the coveted Masters degree in economics and finance at Warwick University. With some 2,000 applications a year for 70 places, it as hard as any undergraduate course to get into. A Nigerian, Chinaza took a first degree at Duke University in the USA. His parents are paying the £13,500 fee and living costs.

Parents are also funding Snehal Sidhu, 22, from India, who is studying the antibiotic- resistant "superbug" MRSA for a research Masters degree in biology at Warwick. Biology, unlike physics and chemistry, is enjoying a postgraduate boom. Snehal comes straight from a three-year undergraduate degree at Cambridge and is likely to move on to Australia for her doctorate before settling back in India.

Home students have different stories. Tracy Veck, 25, is studying part-time for a research doctorate in the philosophy of mental health, and paying her way. While taking a BA in religious studies at University College Chichester, she worked part-time in a psychiatric hospital and then in community care. Now she spends 20 to 25 hours a week inputting data at the university to fund the £900 doctoral fee and her living costs.

Rebecca Belcher, 22, taking a taught Masters in management science and operational research, has her £4,600 fee paid by a university scholarship and free accommodation on campus in return for a job in her hall of residence. The Masters degree will boost her numerical skills, she says, and make her more employable.

Sophie Blanch, 28, has just completed her PhD in English and hopes to become an academic. After a first degree at the University of East Anglia, she took a Masters at Warwick in gender literature and modernity, funded by a bank loan. She was supported for the first three years of her PhD by a studentship from the Arts and Humanities Research Board, and for the final year by her husband, who recently finished a doctorate in physics at Warwick. BP

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