Who wants just one degree?

With an ever increasing number of students opting to study beyond a first degree, its boom time in postgraduate education. Steve McCormack looks at the reasons why and at the popular options
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The Independent Online

There probably never was a time when universities were free to pursue the purest of educational and research goals without being forced to contaminate their motives with financial considerations. But there's no doubt that the growing need to make ends meet has led to an intensified concentration on the bottom line since the turn of the millennium. Vice-chancellors, however reluctantly, now openly justify the closure of academic departments on the grounds of cost.

There probably never was a time when universities were free to pursue the purest of educational and research goals without being forced to contaminate their motives with financial considerations. But there's no doubt that the growing need to make ends meet has led to an intensified concentration on the bottom line since the turn of the millennium. Vice-chancellors, however reluctantly, now openly justify the closure of academic departments on the grounds of cost.

One way in which nearly every institution is increasing its income, though, is by expanding the range of postgraduate courses, which, of course, attract larger fees than first degrees - fees that are even bigger if the students come from outside the EU. The recent expansion of the sector has been marked. The Graduate Prospects website ( www.prospects.ac.uk) channels first-time graduates in two main directions: work and further study. The second of those categories contained details of 15,000 research and taught courses four years ago. It now has 19,000 - up by over a quarter.

Fortunately for the universities, a number of factors have, over the same period, coalesced to produce an increased demand among students wanting to participate in postgraduate courses. First, the strength of the English language has led more foreign students to want to acquire a postgraduate qualification in English. And the sharp rise, driven by the Government, in the size of the domestic undergraduate population, has added to that demand. According to Mike Hill, the chief executive of Graduate Prospects, "More students with first degrees come to the conclusion that they need to distinguish themselves in the jobs market by continuing in education on a Masters or doctorate course." At the same time, professions undergoing rising recruitment such as teaching, law and social work, require entrants to acquire a postgraduate qualification.

These developments have steadily caused a massive expansion in the pool of postgraduate students. In 1990 there were approximately 100,000 students active in postgraduate education in the UK. Today, there are reckoned to be half a million. Nearly 3,500 of them are at the London School of Economics (LSE) where the subjects that have experienced most expansion include accounting and finance, management, economics, international relations and law - all areas, according to Simon Beattie, LSE's graduate admissions manager, where the added value of a postgraduate qualification is more likely to be measurable in financial terms as well as academic. "These are the areas, rather than a sociology Masters, for example, where you're really likely to add to your earning potential," he explains.

Fees for postgraduate courses, unlike the government-subsidised first degrees, have to be paid in full. At the LSE, a PhD is likely to cost at least £3,000 for a UK or EU student and nearly £11,000 for someone from further afield. The corresponding figures for taught Masters courses are £8,000 and £12,000 respectively. All of which creates substantial and much needed ballast in the LSE's coffers. Thirty per cent of the university's gross annual income comes from postgraduate student fees. "It's very important," says Beattie.

Other universities have experienced expansion of similar dimensions. At Sussex University, places on postgraduate courses rose by 28 per cent in the first three years of this decade. And demand for those places far exceeded supply. Applications to join taught Masters courses went up 76 per cent between 2000 and 2004. The corresponding rise for PhDs was 22 per cent. Taken as a whole, overseas students account for the bulk of these increases, but, nevertheless, UK student applications for Masters courses rose by nearly a quarter during the four year period. On top of the general desire among more first degree holders to differentiate themselves with a further qualification, Sussex attribute this increase to a belief among some students that employers are no longer persuaded by academic qualifications alone. "Students are sensitive to the perception of being work-shy, so demand is tending to move towards more vocationally-oriented postgraduate taught programmes," explains Sussex's academic registrar, Owen Richards.

Some institutions, however, have deliberately gone for slower, steadier growth in their postgraduate operation. Leeds University, for example, which has a total number of students, at all levels, of more than 33,000, has seen its postgraduate cohort go up a modest six per cent in the past two years, to its current total of 6,720. On taught Masters courses at Leeds, business-related subjects have been among those showing the biggest increases. As far as research-based doctorates are concerned, there's been a swing back in the last year or so in the direction of science and technology, after expansion at the beginning of the decade in arts and humanities subjects. In general, however, the university does not see the postgraduate sphere as an earner, although taught Masters in management subjects, particularly MBA programmes, have been able to charge what Leeds calls premium fees. "We haven't had the financial pressures that other institutions have had," explains pro vice-chancellor John Fisher. "The financial strength of the university has come from growth across the whole student population, rather than chasing one particular sector."

One approach that Leeds does have in common with most other universities, though, is its putting momentum and money behind postgraduate courses that relate to particular jobs. Among the most recent examples at Leeds is a new MA in environmental consultancy, which has been developed with employers. It is designed to offer training in the skills and expertise relevant to employment as an environmental management consultant.

The university is marketing the course as the first Masters of its kind in the UK. At Graduate Prospects, Hill sees this type of course as evidence of universities trying to find a niche for themselves in the postgraduate market, as the demand from students wanting to further their studies continues to rise. "I can't see the trend stopping yet. As far as I can see it's going on and on."

HOW THE SUMS ADD UP FOR MATURE STUDENTS

Vineeta Dixit, from India, is in the middle of a one-year taught Masters in social policy and planning in developing countries, at the LSE. In the late 1980s, she did a first degree in zoology, and a Masters in management at Jammu University, in northern India. After that, she worked in the field of e-learning and technology, but decided that she needed to know more about how social policy brings about progress in developing countries.

There are 40 other students on the course, of varying ages and from a wide range of countries. "It is absolutely essential to study with people from different backgrounds," explains Dixit. "You learn just as much from fellow students as you do in the classroom." On average, the group have 20 taught hours a week. Their exams are in June, and they must submit a 10,000-word dissertation in September.

The course fees are £12,000, with Dixit budgeting as much again for living costs. She works 15 hours a week with LSE's student recruitment office to help fund her studies. At the end of her course, she'd like to work in Africa.

Lucy Solomon, a single mother of three whose rheumatoid arthritis makes it difficult for her to type, was already a mature student when she finished her first degree, in sociology, at Sussex University in 2000. The fact that her background differed so substantially from the norm led her to research widening participation at university level for a part-time DPhil in sociology and social psychology. For the last five years she's divided her time between her studies, her school-age children and a job as a research assistant at the Sussex Institute. She's now writing up her doctorate. Although it's been a struggle financially, she has no regrets. "I have thoroughly enjoyed it. Five years in, I am still interested in my subject."

After Solomon started working at the Institute at the end of the second year, the university waived her fees. She hopes to use her PhD to continue research into the sociology of undergraduate participation.

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