A master’s degree isn’t always more valuable

Pressure from employers and peers to get higher degrees can leave students with more debt but no better jobs, says Robert Hesketh 

May 19, 2019
Group of graduates holding degree certificates
Source: iStock

Recent official income data from the UK’s Department for Education and Skills has shown that with increasing numbers of people graduating with undergraduate degrees, the biggest earning premium is with those staying in higher education to further their studies. 

In most cases this means enrolling in a self-funded master’s degree course. While the UK’s universities minister Chris Skidmore has welcomed this “graduate premium” and of course the universities themselves no doubt are silently pleased at these figures, the invisible downside has been the added pressure that many undergraduate students have felt, not just from employers but from their own peers, to continue with their education.

Over the past three years that I have taught a criminal justice master’s degree course at Liverpool John Moores University, I have noticed a dramatic increase in the number of students coming on to the course directly after graduating with their first degree. 

My suspicions of peer pressure were confirmed after speaking to some of my postgraduate cohort who admitted that it wasn’t necessarily out of choice that they had enrolled in a second degree course. In fact, they had felt pressure to pursue postgraduate study because many of their friends were asking “What are you going to do for your master’s?”. 

Clearly, for some students, having just an undergraduate degree is associated with failure; simply having a bachelor’s degree is not enough to succeed in the world of graduate employment. Postgraduate study has become the new benchmark by which a successful university education is now being judged.

While the figures show that postgraduates have an average salary of £40,000, compared with £34,000 for graduates and £24,000 for non-graduates, the Department for Education and Skills must realise that this is not the path that many students will automatically find themselves on across all parts of the country. 

Let us not forget, when it comes to social mobility, the UK is stagnant. According to research by the Sutton Trust, Britain is among the worst of the 37 OECD nations for income mobility, something that the Department for Education would be hesitant to mention, no doubt. 

Geography plays a huge role in this. The number of degrees a graduate has can be irrelevant if they end up returning to a location where degree level employment is scarce or bordering on non-existent, and in order to benefit from this so called “graduate premium” the only option available is to migrate. 

Yet, with the cost of a master’s course running around £9,000 or £10,000 added to an already bulging student debt of £40,000 or more for an undergraduate degree, relocating may not be a choice. 

It is clear that universities and central government need to stand back and gain a true picture of the reality of the climate that austerity has created in some parts of the country. 

Having two degrees for some might indeed get them a graduate job that yields dividends in the more affluent areas of the south, but for others just north of the Watford gap, it may mean nothing more that two or three extra letters on their CV with the eventual outcome being a job that could have been obtained with one degree or less. 

For final year undergraduate students themselves who are feeling pressurised by the sight of their friends applying for master’s courses, my advice is to stop and think about what you want to achieve, and, more importantly, the value of such a qualification around where you live if you intend to stay there. Talking to others such as local employers and university careers should be your first port of call before talking to your bank manager. 

Robert Hesketh’s research focuses on gang culture and urban areas. He is a lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University.

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