Postgraduate Opportunities and the Credit Crunch

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by Dr Catherine Armstrong

This week an unexpectedly positive outcome of the current financial crisis was announced. Durham University are offering a number of taught masters scholarships in order to help its undergraduates who are finding the job market tough at the moment. This article will explore what these opportunities will mean for the university sector as a whole.

Masters: why?

As there are more undergraduate students than ever, many of the brightest students believe that it is important to have a further qualification to stand out from the jobseeking crowd. This could be either a professional, vocational masters, for example in law, or a more traditional academic subject such as history that will offer future employers a number of transferable skills. However, the problem of funding further study is a significant one.

Many undergraduates finish university with large debts, often spiralling to over £10,000; this is especially true for those students from families whose income means they have missed out on any financial support offered by the government. What would make a student want to carry on with further study rather than starting work immediately? The answer, according to Durham University, could be because there are fewer jobs out there.

This recession is affecting the professional sector badly, so many graduates hoping to go into positions in finance in the city, for example, are finding an already competitive job market even more difficult this year.Durham University, then, is offering its students a financial incentive to stay on and do a Master's course. The scholarships of £2000 will not make much of a dent in the MBA fees of £19,000, but for the cheaper masters courses the money will make a significant difference.

For a student thinking about doing postgraduate work, what would a taught Master's add to his or her CV? Simply, it makes you stand out from the rest. When you are applying for jobs in which hundreds of applicants have good degrees, if you can show that you have taken your study that extra step it will be to your benefit. In terms of practical skills, you will have to work much more independently and run your own research project. You will develop your written and oral presentation skills and will be a much better time manager having had to work on written projects for a number of months. The in-depth nature of masters study means that you are not only an expert in your particular field but also that you can demonstrate commitment and hard work at a challenging intellectual level.

Some people argue that they are afraid of being overly qualified. In this economic climate that isn't really a legitimate concern. Plus, it is the student's responsibility to show that he or she has acquired a number of skills that will be directly relevant to the field of work in which they hope to go into, and not simply narrowing their research focus more and more.

These Master's scholarships at Durham are certainly not designed to train future academics. They are offered for taught Master's courses that, as their name suggests, still retain a large element of tutor-student contact. Although you have much more autonomy over your study than undergraduates, you are still being firmly guided. A research Master's degree is considered more useful training for an academic career. You would have to write longer pieces of work and almost certainly have less formal contact time with your tutor.

What is the impact on university teaching?

Bearing in mind that this policy could increase the number of students taking masters courses, what impact will they have on university teaching? Will tutors have students at postgraduate level doing a Master's simply because they can't get a job, or because it seems like a fun idea, rather than because they are dedicated to their subject? I think the answer is ‘no', because staying on at university will still require a big financial commitment. It will not be for everyone: the thought of another year's intensive study after three years of undergraduate work will put off many. Those who do sign up for postgraduate work, while not wanting to become scholars in the field, will still be dedicated and intelligent individuals who want to learn new skills to enable them to perform strongly in the job market. It will be up to university lecturers to design their Master's courses to allow students to gain those skills.

Attracting more students to Master's courses has long been the intention of many universities and departments, as has improving the career chances of their leaving graduates. This policy seems to go a long way towards achieving those two goals. An added bonus for the institution is that it encourages student loyalty to their alma mater and keeps the brightest students in the region, rather than seeing a migration of the top graduates to London to take up ‘milk round' positions. Let's hope other institutions follow suit.

It would also be good to see universities offering more internal scholarships for research Masters and even PhDs. Obviously this is out of the question for many cash-strapped departments who are almost solely reliant on achieving external funding to support their research postgraduates. However, developing a similar sort of nurturing culture whereby ‘home grown' undergraduates are encouraged to pursue an academic career by offering financial and career support would encourage many more of the brightest students to go down this route instead of pursuing lucrative careers in other sectors.

This situation is especially critical in the fields of science and technology where there is little incentive for graduates to pursue a career in academia when there are such large salaries to be made elsewhere. Having said that, perhaps the recession will have an impact on that pattern too, as the relative security of public sector employment seems more and more attractive.

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