Don't lose MSc magic

October 17, 2003

Undergraduate top-ups lead the news but masters students will be hit harder, says Bruce Yardley

Mention "fees" to most people and the first thing they think about is the cost of undergraduate courses. The specialist training required for many careers, however, takes place in postgraduate-taught MSc courses, not at undergraduate level.

These are vocational courses offering intense theory and practical instruction in applied topics that are beyond the scope of undergraduate courses. They are distinct from masters degrees that have a large component of private study and are usually much cheaper to run.

For many professions, especially those in which the employers are relatively small businesses such as environmental consultants, vocational-taught MSc courses are the primary source of trained personnel.

But these misunderstood courses are under threat as never before. In the environmental areas, the Natural Environment Research Council funds places on a range of the best one-year taught MSc courses, although only a small percentage of courses that apply for support receive funded places.

However, the income set by the Higher Education Funding Council for England for teaching the courses is so low (relative to cost and to the income for teaching undergraduates) that two highly regarded vocational courses recently closed their doors to students. This happened despite the courses having Nerc-funded places. The universities in question felt that at such low financial returns, vocational-taught MSc courses were simply not worth it.

In my department at Leeds, we receive more money for an undergraduate in the final year of a four-year undergraduate masters degree who takes a postgraduate MSc module than for the MSc student sitting in the next seat.

The dilemma facing MSc teachers is that the level of funding does not allow an intensive 12-month vocational course to be taught without subsidy from other departmental activities. A course taught within budgetary constraints could not deliver the minimum level of training that the employers and graduates consider necessary. Learning how to use modern laboratories and industry-standard software, or even how to get to grips with difficult sums, is not amenable to cheap learning methods or economies of scale, but there are real national skills shortages that vocational MSc courses address.

The situation is deteriorating. Even if MSc courses charged top-up fees on a par with those proposed for undergraduates, there is a risk that student demand will fall owing to increased accumulated debt. If courses are dumbed down to a level of teaching that can be justified by the funding received, much of the advanced technical education in the UK will come to an end.

Furthermore, the differential support levels being proposed for different types of science department will, if implemented, make it even harder for vocational MSc training to be carried out in supposedly low-cost science subjects, even though these are often where science is applied to the daily world.

This type of teaching requires the full resources of a science department, irrespective of whether or not some of the undergraduate teaching that goes on in the same building is less expensive. The wording of the Hefce consultation does not encourage the thought that the realities of teaching practical science are in the forefront of its deliberations.

It is time that Hefce and employers woke up to the fact that vocational MSc courses are staff intensive and often run as a labour of love by academics who get no credit in today's university system if their efforts do not bring an adequate financial return.

MSc courses across all the sciences must bring in enough income to be viable. And since an MSc is not as good a route to a large salary for life as an MBA, it may be that those who find MSc graduates indispensable - in public services as well as in industry - should be looking to ways of supporting good graduates to take this route and put their science to practical use.

Bruce Yardley is professor of metamorphic geochemistry at the School of Earth Sciences, University of Leeds.

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