Increasing numbers of undergraduate students are deciding to further their academic study with a masters degree. From 2001 there has been a steady increase in participation, with the number of full-time postgraduates rising by 36% in the last five years.
As more students opt for further study, what effect will this have on their employability, and will those without a postgraduate degree be weaker applicants in the job market?
Traditional vs. vocational degrees
The percentage of graduates entering further study after finishing their undergraduate degree has increased from 14.1% in 2008 to 15.4% in 2009. The most popular Masters subjects may also have taken a swing. With an influx of students now wanting to study a more vocational or practical degree, such as Business Studies and Management Studies, traditional academic subjects such as English and History are less popular than they once were. In 2008, 8.2% of graduates took Business Studies at postgraduate levels, compared to 2.4% who opted for English. This swing in subject choice could be attributed to the recent increase in tuition fees, as well as the economic climate, with the recession causing higher student unemployment.
Professor Steve West from the UWE claims students “are likely to be focused on what will give them the skill sets they are looking for. They will be seeking out vocational professional programmes, not an MA in History.” He suggests this will see universities simply churning out students ready to fit neatly into the job market rather than shaping them according to the demands of academic creativity and rigour.
Postgraduate degrees and the job market
One advantage of taking on further study is the huge difference between unemployment rates for Masters students and for undergraduate students. Just under 8% of those leaving university with an undergraduate degree are unemployed six months after graduation, compared to 4.1% of those with a postgraduate degree.
Beyond pointing to an increasingly competitive job market, the increase of students opting for postgraduate study has raised concerns about the quality of graduate jobs. Employers have their pick of successful, highly educated candidates, so naturally will often demand the more skilled workers. As more candidates have postgraduate degrees, the bar is raised for everyone else. Will this continue until students are obliged to get PhDs just to stay in the running?
Some professions are demanding university training where none was previously required. Others disagree. Donna Miller, from Enterprise Rent-A-Car, claims her preference would be
an undergraduate, with work experience, rather than a Masters without it. Others point out that there is no need for employers to hire those with a postgraduate qualification when so many high quality BA holders are readily available.
The future of further study
Despite recent plans for increased tuition fees, the signs point to growing popularity for postgraduate degrees, especially if students rush into further study in 2011 to avoid the planned increases. The job market, especially for graduate jobs, is still difficult and largely affected by the recession. If the fees aren’t too tough to stomach, graduates who opt for further study may just find they have the edge in this competitive environment.