09/08/2013 09:39 BST | Updated 08/10/2013 06:12 BST

The Madness of it All


To all freshers, and prospective university students : there will come a time in your final year, probably during the spring term, where you'll go through an existential crisis.

Like many of my former classmates, you might try to hide from it by seeking refuge in the confines of the library, in the belief that industrious note-taking will drown out those annoying thoughts of looming unemployment. The strategic amongst you might attempt to avoid the crisis through the pursuit of vocational extra curriculars, hoping that your sudden attendance at Law Society meetings might deceive the gatekeepers at Clifford Chance. And if you'd rather not be haunted by the prospect of moving back to your sleepy home town, cheap vodka is always good for temporary amnesia.

There is of course another route of escape from the brutalities of the real world without the hangovers: the master's degree.

Indeed, for those of us who were seduced by the charms of Romantic literature and Medieval History in secondary school, only to be deemed incapable management consultants by the grand wizards at Ernst & Young, the option of a masters certainly seems a lucrative distraction.

But there's a catch. For the luxury of an extra year in the bubble, you'll be looking to pay on average anywhere from £5,000 to £18,000 on tuition alone. Though it might be easier to get into the ultra-competitive universities, 'brands' like the London School of Economics (LSE), herald tuition fees of over £20,000 for their flagship courses. And if you aren't one of the lucky few to receive research funding, most of this is likely to come out of your own pocket.

Unlike protests against undergraduate fees, the extortionate cost of MA courses has widely gone unchallenged. Rather, many prospective postgraduates justify the costs on the basis that brand strength will increase their chances of employment. Others, despite acknowledging that pursuing this route will add to their student debt, hope that a masters will provide a better means to differentiate themselves within an extremely saturated job market. As a postgraduate recruiter once told me, "These days, it's next to impossible to secure a job with a BA. Just like in Europe, MAs are becoming a necessity".

If this assertion holds true, then we truly live in a rather sorry state of affairs. Rather than a university education empowering students, the necessity of advanced degrees seem to illustrate how the higher education industry has profited from student vulnerability. Far from a platform of social mobility, course fees and maintenance costs price out those students without the access to funds. Master's degrees are no longer predicated on academic advancement, but rather utilised as a 'cash cow', in which university administrations can plug funding gaps and cutbacks. Such an industry capitalises on the fears of anxious students, manipulated into believing that only through the pursuit of a masters qualification can they even stand a chance of securing a career outside of Poundland.

This isn't to say that master's degrees are entirely worthless, but for postgraduate recruiters to sell their courses on the basis that it 'enhances' graduate employment prospects are disingenuous. Such a proposition ignores the higher value most employers place on work experience and internships. Students applying for an MA should do so on the basis of their passion for learning, rather than the fear that an absence of two extra letters on their CV will keep them stuck stacking shelves.