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Priced Out, Is a Masters a Must Have That Students Can't Afford?

Posted: 05/02/2013 00:00

Anecdotally at least, it seems that a bachelor's degree isn't what it once was. Three years at university used to set you up for life but now it seems that rising student numbers (the last few years excluded) and a highly competitive job market have seen the value of a BSc or Ba fall. Tales of recently graduates working in bars and retail, first as a summer stop gap and then more permanently are becoming more common. This begs the question, what does one need to get a good graduate job?

The answer might be a master's degree. An extra year of specialist study to rack up your employability sounds to the uninitiated like a bomb proof idea. The problem is the cost. While students have spent the last three years protesting about undergraduate fees the issue of master's fees has gone unchallenged. In a nation that relies heavily on the 'quaternary' industries of research and technological development the monetary cost of pursuing such a path is, for an individual without means, alarmingly high.

Unlike the three years you will spend drinking and cramming your way through an undergraduate degree there are no student loans for post-graduate study. Under the current fees system a three year degree at one of Britain's top ranked university costs around £21,000. Some of the same establishments charge more than this for a one year taught masters degree.

Oxford University is currently being sued by a student who claims that the requirement for proof of an ability to pay £12,900 a year in living expenses on top of fees, which the Observer reports can reach up to £41,000, breaches his human rights. Perhaps it is no surprise that about 1,000 students a year decline an offered postgraduate place at Oxford due to the need to provide hefty financial backing to their studies. Ironically in the case reported above the student in question had been preparing to read an MSc in Economics.

It would be unfair, as well as a lazy exercise in Oxbridge bashing to single out Oxford for its grand fees. The fact is that most universities in Britain charge the sort of money for a master's course that bangs the door firmly in the faces of students from lower income households. The LSE charges well over £10,000 for most of its taught postgraduate programmes, with some costing double that. The University of Manchester charges less, with a full-time MSc in Economics costing just of £6,000 while my own institution, UCL, would charge a student £8,250 to study an MSc in geoscience. While there is a relatively wide range of fees most of them are still beyond the means of a student from middle to low income background.

There are other options. More universities are beginning to offer the Msci, a four your course that brings an undergraduate and one year matters programme together as a single qualification that, crucially, can be funded by the Student Loans Company. Not all universities offer this and even at those that do not all subjects can be taken, but for some this is a viable path to greater employability. Scholarships do exist for postgraduate study, although they are few and their number is shrinking fast. There is also the call of study abroad, with a number of European countries offering free post graduate tuition in courses taught in English, albeit over two years and with the counterweight of higher living costs to contend with.

I would propose that although the idea of a masters being essential for graduate employment is to be ridiculed, it is true that having an MSc or MA genuinely helps, especially in highly competitive or technical fields. It is something every student should consider both before and during their time at university. Do you need a masters? Do you want one? How will you pay? On a broader note the cost of post graduate study is also a question for wider society. If we want to preserve our position as one of the world's leading centres of learning we need students to be able to qualify for research. This isn't just a question of students not being able to pursue personal academic interests or having to enter employment at a lower salary but a fundamental issue of how learning is regarded in Britain. Until we can agree on a way of making masters courses more accessible they will remain for a fortunate few who can afford the expense.


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