You might think that postgraduate courses and pandemics don’t mix, but Tristram Hooley, chief research officer at the Institute of Student Employers (ISE), says that the demand for postgraduate study actually rises during periods of recession.
“Many graduates sensibly seek to delay their entry to the labour market and enhance their skills while they wait,” he says. “Obviously universities are taking advantage of this situation and pushing postgraduate degrees hard.”
Chris Rea, head of commercial services at Prospects, which works with research and education partners to develop technologies for teaching, says that despite the government’s current financial constraints, it is business as usual when it comes to postgrad funding.
“Government loans schemes remain popular and there has been no significant change to tuition fees,” says Rea. “There has been some talk about refunds for the first term but that has been focused more on undergraduates than postgraduates. The postgraduate funding instruments are intact – the national master’s and PhD loan schemes, Research Council studentships, charities, foundations and trusts, and university scholarships are all running as usual.”
The impact of the lockdown has probably been felt more acutely by postgraduate students who are working while studying, he says, with the collapse of jobs in traditional student employment sectors. Before you embark on a postgraduate course you should, however, consider the costs against the long-term employment benefits, says Hooley. “Not all postgraduate courses are equal and students should be wary about just staying in education for the sake of it.
“Very few of our ISE members actively require a postgraduate degree. Students would be advised to choose postgraduate courses that clearly lead to jobs and which can demonstrate that they produce employable graduates.”
The average taught master’s course costs more than £8,000, according to figures from FindAMasters and the Times Higher Education but postgraduates fees can vary depending on the subject, university and location. Postgraduate master’s courses can include MSc (master of science), MA (master of arts), MRes (master of research) and LLM (master of law.)
The UK government offers postgraduate student loans of up to £11,222 but the eligibility criteria can vary depending on the student’s course, age, nationality or residency status. There are a number of other options, too: government funding from the seven UK Research Councils (students usually apply through their course provider); scholarships; studentships – postgraduate positions that come with funding, charitable trusts and societies and, if you’re working, potentially your employer.
UK students wanting to study a postgraduate course in Northern Ireland may be able to get financial support from the Department for the Economy. Scottish students may also get help from the Student Awards Agency for Scotland.
Prof Bruce Rayton, academic director of PGT (postgraduate taught) Recruitment and Admissions at the University of Bath, says that despite the current conditions, the prospects for the postgraduate market remain buoyant.
“Every indication is that prospective students still greatly value the opportunity of a postgraduate education and look forward to pursuing their studies when they feel the situation allows.”
Melissa Aitchinson, 22, is doing a master’s in politics and contemporary history at the University of Nottingham
“I applied to do my master’s last summer, which was quite late in the year but after the pandemic started in March I thought it would be even harder to get a full-time job. I was a student at Nottingham Trent before, but the experience of doing a master’s has been completely different. Funding my course has been one of the biggest challenges for me. Previously, I’d received a core bursary of three payments totalling £750 for each year of my degree, but this was not available for postgraduate study. As master’s students we pay for our own tuition. I have a loan of £11,000, which is split into three payments and my course costs £9,045. I share a house with seven other students and my rent is around £95 a week.
“I earn between £300-500 a month as a waiter at our local Beefeater restaurant, but I was furloughed during the second lockdown last year, which meant my earnings went down. My mum also has to help me out each month or else I just wouldn’t manage. Mum is self-employed so gives me whatever she can afford that month, usually around £100, but it can vary.
“There have been other challenges, too. My housemates and I all got Covid in October and had to self-isolate in our rooms for two weeks. I only have two hours of face-to-face seminars a week for my course so it’s hard to feel part of things at times. I’d have felt lost without my housemates.”
Saurav Dutt, 35, is doing a master’s in law at King’s College London
“We had a fairly swift transition to online learning when the pandemic began last year (March 2020) but e-learning was already a major feature of my master’s course. It’s very convenient in lots of ways and I like the fact I can do it from the comfort of my own home, but not being able to have as much interaction with students and teachers can be a bit challenging at times. I think recorded videos lack the personal touch and it’s much easier to learn, debate and analyse issues in a small classroom.
“My master’s is self-funded and I had initially planned to cover most of the £9,000 costs with my earnings from my job as a contractor in the City but I was made redundant after the pandemic. By then I’d paid off about half of the cost of the course.
“After that, I borrowed from family and worked in various freelance roles to make up the difference. I did think about getting a loan but thought, given the current climate, interest rates would be prohibitive.
“I am looking to do a Doctorate in law after the LLM and teach law. I’m also trying to cultivate a side-gig with digital marketing, creative writing, being an author and research for NGOs.”
*Interviews by Abby Young-Powell