The popularity of courses that combine a master’s and bachelor’s degree has exploded over the past five years as students look for new ways to finance postgraduate study, an analysis by Times Higher Education reveals.
Almost 79,000 students were on courses that included an integrated master’s in 2012-13, nearly double the number for 2007-08 when the figure stood at just under 43,000, according to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
But one academic has raised concerns about the rigour of the courses compared with a stand-alone master’s and questioned whether they take the UK out of step with the Bologna process.
Experts that THE has spoken to suggest that the courses are becoming an increasingly popular way to access finance for a master’s qualification as approved programmes are eligible for taxpayer-backed student loan funding. Students funding postgraduate-only study must typically rely on their own funds or lending from high street banks.
The Hesa data suggest that integrated master’s courses have become more popular in all subject areas except for mass communications and documentation, where student numbers have fallen since 2011-12 after steady growth. No courses are currently available in veterinary science or agriculture.
Overall, integrated master’s courses in science and engineering subjects are more popular than those in the arts and humanities, but even these subjects now have hundreds more students taking the qualification than five years ago.
Engineering and technology subjects have seen the largest surge in sign-ups, with about 11,500 more students on the courses in 2012-13 than in 2007-08. Other fields to see strong growth are physical sciences, up by almost 8,400 over the past five years, and subjects allied to medicine, up by almost 8,000 in the same period.
The University of East London has recently approved an integrated master’s programme structure. The director of UEL’s graduate school, Alan White, said that one of the primary drivers was that students could access state loans.
“With increasing undergraduate student fees debt, stand-alone master’s programmes are going to experience a dramatic fall in demand,” he said. “The integrated master’s is a way, for the moment, for students to fund [advanced] study at a loan rate more attractive than bank loans.”
He added that science subjects have historically had a dominant share of the integrated master’s market and that this trend may “shift as other disciplinary areas wake up to the possibility of creating these programmes”.
Mick Fuller, chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education, said that many of the courses are accredited by science, technology, engineering and maths professional bodies, or are aligned to industrial employers. “They have been justified due to the requirements of the industry partners requiring further practical [and] research skills than can be provided by a three-year bachelor’s programme,” he explained.
But he warned that most current integrated master’s programmes are not designed to be at the same academic level in the final year as a stand-alone course. He also suggested that integrated courses were “out of step” with the aim of Europe’s Bologna Process to standardise the study required at different degree levels, but growth was “tolerated” owing to the influence of STEM employers.
Janet Metcalfe, chair and head of research careers development organisation Vitae, said that the integrated master’s qualification was also “less understood outside the UK”.
“Graduates wanting to do their research degrees outside the UK, for example in the rest of Europe, will find they are competing…for places in countries that may not understand the integrated master’s qualification,” she said.
However, Charlie Ball, deputy director of research of the Higher Education Careers Service Unit, said that the outcomes for graduates in terms of employment were “pretty good”. He said that the latest Hesa data showed that those with an integrated master’s were more likely than bachelor’s graduates to be in full-time work or further study.
But he also highlighted that the students who typically take an integrated master’s are not from widening participation backgrounds. “If you are a student who is not terribly aware of the nuances of these courses, it might seem that you are paying [for] an extra year in a lot of cases, and it might not necessarily seem worth it,” he said.
Melinda Drowley, head of standards, quality and enhancement at the Quality Assurance Agency, said that it was monitoring the growth in integrated master’s “very closely” but stressed that the courses were compatible with Bologna if their outcomes meet “the expectations of the descriptor for a higher education qualification at level 7 in full”.