Throughout our time at school we are constantly being pushed towards university, the premise of which is that it’s almost impossible to find a fulfilling career without a degree. But with the overwhelming number of institutions and courses to choose from, it seems questionable whether undergraduate study provides us with much of an advantage. In 2011-2012, the Higher Education Statistics Agency shows that almost two and a half million students were in some form of higher education. And with so many people in university, it becomes increasingly difficult to find work after graduation.
The huge amount of competition in almost every area of the job market ensures constant pressure on anyone unsure of what to do next. For those doing vocational degrees, perhaps some form of relief can be found when considering how to apply their degrees. However, for those studying other subjects, life after university can look bleak at best. Arts and humanities are notorious when it comes to finding work after university. A quick glance of a survey will tell you that over half of English Literature graduates are in employment within six months of graduation. However, a closer look informs us that 23.6% are in retail, catering or bar work, with the majority 46.6% being in unpromisingly vague ‘other’ employment. With 20% of literature graduates going on to do further study, it raises the question of whether this is due to choice or necessity. The saturated job market makes it difficult for recent graduates to set themselves apart from their rivals and secure a career. And with ever rising numbers of students securing high 2:1s or 1st class degrees, postgraduate study has almost become the natural next step in the process of gaining employment.
Since the 2012 rise in tuition fees to £9000 a year for undergraduate study, Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has come under fire for the lack of accessibility of higher education. Peter Lampl from the European Students’ Union claims that ‘some students in England, after borrowing for housing and living expenses, will leave school with as much as 40,000 pounds ($64,200) in debt’. Yet despite the long term consequences of such high figures, it seems that more and more students are being coerced into postgraduate study to set themselves apart from their rivals in the job market. It’s no secret that universities are inadequately funded, but for postgraduate study, it’s often up to the student to secure the funds for the course. Obtaining government funded student finance for undergraduate study is, as any student will confirm, a lengthy and frustrating process. But navigating the options of postgraduate funding is so difficult that it almost seems like a deterrent. The government page for postgraduate funding is plastered with links to other sites, with brief but largely unhelpful descriptions of what each company will offer. The overview for the page itself is: ‘You can get funding for postgraduate study through studentships, bursaries, grants and loans – you might also get help from your employer.’ Unlike undergraduate study, applying for funding for postgraduate degrees requires different routes for different courses. So unless students already know what they’re looking for, exploring the options and finding the appropriate material can be time consuming and often unproductive. And once students get past this initial step, it is far from guaranteed that they will be awarded the funding they need. Of the seven areas that the Research Council offers funding for, only one covers arts and humanities, with the other six being science or economics based. Despite the plethora of links on the government website, the availability of comprehensive information and funding opportunities are overwhelmingly insufficient.
In London, the average cost of postgraduate degrees is £11 000, but courses can cost up to almost £29 000. It is therefore clear that this huge sum makes doing a Masters degree an impossibility for those who would otherwise pursue it. Moreover, universities offer discounts of up to 30% for existing undergraduates to continue with a postgraduate degree, with 10% off still being offered to those who obtain a 2:2. Although choosing an institution based on discounts seems far from ideal, many students wishing to go into further study have no choice but to do this. With the high costs, competition across universities, and relaxed entry requirements for Masters degrees, it seems fair to suppose that it has become an issue of money over merit. However, international students still flock to the UK for postgraduate study, ‘making up approximately 30% of all UK postgraduates’ according to UKPass. As the UK clearly remains a popular choice for home students and international students alike, the standard of education seems to speak for itself.
The world-class level of teaching that the UK offers cannot be denied. Yet it is a shame that, due to lack of funding and the average cost of undergraduate and postgraduate study alike, many would-be applicants are unable to access it. If Britain’s universities are unable to attract home students for postgraduate study and provide them with the education necessary for the job market, the impact will surely be detrimental. As undergraduate degrees have replaced A Levels as the standard qualification sought by most employees, one can only question what the next step will be. With it becoming increasingly difficult to set themselves apart form their rivals, will students turn to postgraduate study out of sheer desperation? And if so, will postgraduate degrees become as necessary as undergraduate degrees seem to be in the current job market? And even more worryingly, will we eventually reach a point where we spend more on education than we could possibly hope to make back through employment?