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11 April 2005updated 24 Sep 2015 11:46am

A mad world, my Masters

MAs and MScs are the new career must-haves, and they're not too rigorous: you can even get one by st

By Rachel Aspden

No longer the preserve of eggheads, hyper-aesthetes or carbuncular information scientists, Masters degrees are the new career must-have. In a market place swamped with more fresh graduates each year, an MA, MSc or MBA on the CV is increasingly seen as providing its holder with a vital edge.

As participation rates in higher education rise, and as ever more students get Upper Seconds and Firsts, first-degree graduates need something else to make them stand out. “You could say that degrees are the new A-levels and Masters are the new degrees,” says a disgruntled lecturer in humanities at Warwick University.

For the more canny universities, these anxieties are proving highly lucrative. While fees for undergraduates are regulated by the government, universities are free to set fees for Masters courses themselves. UK/EU fees average £4,000, with international students paying between £8,000 and £12,000 for the same courses. The more exclusive the course, the higher the fees – a Masters in business administration at the London Business School costs £41,970.

What students think they are buying is a prestigious academic brand to put on their CV. “The name is what you pay for,” says Katie Johnson, an MSc student at the London School of Economics. The universities cautiously agree. “Masters applicants are primarily attracted by our international reputation,” says Professor Stephen Chan, dean of law and social sciences at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas). Along with every other UK university, Soas, says Chan, is “looking hard at how to grow our one-year MA courses”. Though he would not say so, this may entail some sharp financial practice, as well as adroit brand management.

The LSE leads this hard-headed field. It runs the largest taught Masters programme in the country, offering more than 90 courses to 3,116 students, and numbers are poised to rise by another 10 per cent next year. Tuition fees average £12,000, with few discounts for UK/EU students, a policy sharply defended by the LSE’s spokeswoman Judith Higgins: “In our experience, graduates can well afford the fee. Many of them go straight into highly paid jobs after the award of their Masters.”

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But, struggling with accumulating debt, the students take a more jaded view. “LSE is a Masters factory,” says Abby Vietor, an American MSc student. The more cynical students suggest that admissions policies and academic assessment are being relaxed. “The LSE’s grading system is extremely general,” says Bhanu Bhatnagar, a candidate for an MSc in media and communications. “It’s disappointing, given the amount of time and energy that I put into producing my essays.”

Stories abound of absent lecturers, overstretched facilities and teaching foisted on to unprepared PhD students. On my own recent Masters course, I arrived at my tutor’s office two weeks running to find him dozing on the sofa, blinds drawn and essays crumpled unread under the daily papers.

An American graduate from Columbia University says he worked for three years to save the £11,000 fee for an MA course at another British college which, he hoped, would enhance his career in arts journalism. But his course turned into an expensive catalogue of frustrations. His student visa required a minimum of eight taught hours a week, but he found himself sharing a two-hour, twice-weekly seminar with 19 other students. Classes ran for only 20 weeks of the year, which meant that he was paying more than £130 an hour “to listen to people describing papers on Nicole Kidman”.

“The classes were astounding for their lack of content,” he says. “Analysing the lyrics of ‘Strange Fruit’ for two hours was truly embarrassing.” Attempts to discuss the course content and structure with lecturers met with evasion or silence. Disillusioned, the student returned to New York to work for a literary agency. His MA, he says, proved “utterly useless”. Another student, studying for an MSc at a university outside London, says: “It just isn’t taken seriously by the tutors. Some two-hour seminars last 20 to 30 minutes.”

Given the hefty price tag on Masters courses, students are not impressed by the warning from the university regulator, Ruth Deech, that postgraduates must “expect the rough with the smooth”. What some would see as picturesque incompetence, they see as infuriating negligence. They don’t want charming eccentricity; they want professionalism and (whisper it) customer service. They prefer lecturers who wear Gucci shirts to those with tweed jackets, and tutors who own Blackberries to those with port decanters.

But academic staff have their grievances, too. “MA courses are the single thing that has ratcheted up the teaching workload over the past decade,” says Dr John Mullan, senior lecturer at University College London. “MA teaching has become a major commitment, without any compensating reduction in undergraduate and PhD supervision. It’s a juggernaut.”

As Mullan suggests, universities are being forcibly awakened to the demands of their assiduously courted Masters students. “We have to break down the barriers between staff and students,” concedes Professor Steven Parissien, dean of arts at Plymouth University. Dr Kasia Boddy, lecturer and long-time MA course convener at UCL, agrees: “MA students are more likely to see themselves as consumers than any other kind of student. They feel they are paying for a service and want to receive it.”

But do Masters degrees enhance your job prospects as the universities claim? Official statistics offer some encouragement. Six months after graduation, nearly a quarter of UK Masters graduates were employed in management, and one-eighth in teaching. Just 3.7 per cent were still unemployed six months after completing their course, against 6.7 per cent of first-degree graduates.

Recruitment consultants suggest, however, that the advantages of a Masters degree vary enormously. “It has a beneficial effect in some sectors, but in others it may not help candidates at all,” says James Pritchard, managing director of the JPA Group of recruitment companies. Some universities may link their course prices to increased employability but, once the fees arrive with the registrar, they might pay little attention to their graduates’ career trajectories.

“Careers services in the UK are very weak,” says Vietor. “Getting a Masters in the US may be expensive, but universities work hard to ensure that their students get jobs out of it.”

One foreign MSc student, hoping her degree would help her find work in the UK, visited her college careers service to find the work visa options almost nil and the staff indifferent to her situation. “They suggested I get married if I wanted to work here,” she says.

As such grumbles grow, British universities may increasingly find that Masters courses are no longer the easy way to plug their funding gaps. Colleges in Australia, Canada, Europe and the Far East are fast catching on to the lucrative market, offering excellent teaching at prices UK institutions cannot match.

Andrew Clarke, a Cambridge University graduate, chose the University of British Columbia in Vancouver for his MA in political science. After the tuition scholarship awarded to most MA candidates, his fees in Canada roughly amount to £1,500 only. “The course is excellent value for money,” he says. “Academic standards are high and the faculty is very international. I’m pleased with my choice.”

If more Masters students are not to follow Clarke abroad, UK universities must abandon branding schmaltz and choose instead old-fashioned quality, reliability and value for money.

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