The price of postgraduate study

Postgraduate study is costly but can be worthwhile if you choose carefully.

Despite increasing undergraduate debt, the demand for postgraduate courses has risen by 41% in the past five years, compared with just 8% for undergraduate programmes. But with both living expenses and fees to be paid for, you will need to think seriously about whether or not further study is worth investing in.

The standard fee for a full-time Masters next year is yet to be confirmed but is likely to be in the region of 3,000; for some courses this figure will be higher. With no Student Loans Company to help shoulder the burden and limited funding available, covering the costs of further study can be a tough task.

Why is postgraduate study so expensive?
Philip Walker at the Higher Education Funding Council for England says that unlike undergraduate courses, postgraduate courses are non-prescribed, meaning that higher education institutions are free to charge whatever fee they deem appropriate.

The postgraduate free-for-all can seem an even starker contrast with the undergraduate situation in the light of the fact that the government chips in subsidies to universities for both under- and postgraduates on more or less the same basis.

Prospects labour market analyst Charlie Ball says the most popular courses cost more than the standard because of market forces as well as any specific expenses involved in running them. The three most popular categories are:

  • MBA - 13.5% of the Masters population in 2004
  • IT Masters - 6.4 %
  • Medicine, nursing and physiotherapists 5.9 %

From a university perspective, some Masters courses are seen as profitable to keep revenue streaming in and therefore the cost does not reflect the true cost of educating students for a year, says Charlie.

Is it worth the cost?
It seems that despite the costs postgraduate courses are an attractive option now that the job market is crowded with first degree holders; there are currently more than 500,000 postgraduates in UK higher education institutions and it is true that postgraduate study can bring great benefits for your career.

Anna Thompson thinks her postgraduate course was worth every penny. After completing a degree in French at the University of Nottingham, Anna spent two years teaching English in Italy. When she returned, she decided to take up a postgraduate course.

I opted for an MSc in Linguistics with reference to French, as I wasnt sure exactly what to do. As I had spent two years teaching English abroad I chose a course that was related to my teaching and my first degree.

I contacted a few universities direct - I specifically chose universities with good all-round reputations, and then when I got the specific course details from them all, I chose the best one for me.

Choose carefully
The route to postgraduate study is personal and particular. How you arrive at your postgraduate course will depend on your undergraduate experiences, your personal circumstances, your finances and your career ambitions. You must take all these factors into account when you apply and be prepared to do plenty of research in advance.

Luckily for Anna, her choice of course paid off. My course definitely gave me the edge over other candidates, says Anna who now works as a project controller for a translation agency.

Carolyn Fishs first Masters did not produce the hoped-for outcome, however. Graduating with an Honours degree in English and Religious Studies, Carolyn decided that a postgraduate degree was in order to give her the edge in the employment market and so applied for a Masters in Religion, Politics and International Relations, at the University of Wales Lampeter.

Eighteen months of study and three months of travel later, and with two degrees under my belt, I thought I had things more figured out, and started applying for positions with gusto. However, despite spending a year applying for many jobs ranging far and wide, in both location and description, I found I was either underqualified, over qualified, or lacking in experience. Straddled with student loans, going around in circles, frustrated with my own lack of direction, and not seeing any fruits of my labour, I took a teaching English position in Japan, in the hope it would give me some perspective, says Carolyn.

Taking a postgraduate course is not always the answer to your career problems and is a big price to pay if it doesnt come off, so it is vital that you make your decision carefully.

I've been here for almost four years now, and whilst in one way, working overseas certainly has enhanced my CV, in another way in the beginning I felt like Id been hiding out from facing the rigours of job hunting. Lack of any clear direction in jobs from my degrees led me to feel like a bit of a failure. Which is why I think its vitally important for all potential postgraduate students to really think of what they would like the end result to be, before embarking on postgraduate study, says Carolyn.

Not put off by her earlier experiences though, Carolyn has decided to give postgraduate study another try, this time choosing a course better suited to the career path she hopes to follow.

Ive almost finished paying off my debt, and am waiting to start an online course with Nottingham Trent University in training as a social science researcher. It means another year of postgraduate study, but it allows me to continue my job as an English as a second language teacher (which I fortunately enjoy very much), but more importantly, I feel that there are solid prospects of future employment after this.

Is there any funding available?
Not all postgrads pay their fees themselves, however. Research Councils put their hands in their pockets for over 10,000 postgraduate researchers every year in the sciences, social science and the arts.

For the rest, some bursaries are available from various sources to pay fees, but not a lot. Nor do the mass of postgrads have anything like the low-interest student loans available to undergraduates to delay the impact of their fees.

Weighing up the cost of a course against a possible boost to your earning power is one way to justify high fees. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency the average salary of a full-time Masters graduate six months after leaving university in 2004 was 22,452, compared with 17,029 for graduates with a first degree only. So it can all be worth it in the end.

Joanne OConnor and Sara Newman

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