Being the Master

One of the side-effects of any significant increase in participation levels in higher education is that a degree no longer sets you apart from the general population. If the official Irish target of securing a 72 per cent participation rate of each age cohort is achieved, then having a degree will be nothing very special. It therefore follows that those with ambition will look more closely at extending their studies to take in a postgraduate degree, usually at Master’s level. And indeed that is what has happened, and over the past decade or so the number of those following this path has increased dramatically. Previously the main postgraduate activity tended to be in business schools, particularly in MBA programmes, but now it is common to have taught degree courses in almost any discipline.

For those who want to develop their portfolio of achievements with a Master’s degree, the jury is actually out as to whether it will necessarily help them very much; it will depend on the degree and the kind of career they want to develop. But a recent article in the Guardian newspaper suggests that some employers are now looking for postgraduate qualification for new recruits in certain jobs.

The question that we may increasingly be putting is whether postgraduate programmes are particularly appropriate for more vocational qualifications, in professions such as law, accountancy and so forth. In other words, we may start to look more closely at the American model of having quite general undergraduate degrees, and keeping profession-oriented programmes at the postgraduate level. It is s model that, on the whole, I would prefer, not least because we should probably stop asking young people to make career choices at the age of 17, when they are often very badly equipped to take such decisions.

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7 Comments on “Being the Master”

  1. wendymr Says:

    The Guardian is repeating itself, in that case, since a former colleague of mine had a piece in the Guardian Higher back in the 1990s making that exact point: that employers were increasingly looking for Masters degrees. Of course, he was trying to drum up business for his own Masters programme…

    I’m not a fan of the North American system for a variety of reasons, but in particular I’m not fond of the idea of making yet more occupational-specific degree programmes postgraduate-only. The result of that is that it puts those programs yet further beyond the reach of certain segments of the population: those from certain socio-economic classes, older potential students and those with family responsibilities, just to mention a few. When I meet with clients to discuss career decision-making, length of study required is usually a major issue for them. It’s not just cost, though few of them want to rack up 6+ years of debt. If someone’s in their 40s, they will not study for six years to become a social worker, or 8+ to become a doctor, or however long to become a lawyer etc. If someone is a parent (lone or otherwise), the same applies: they simply can’t balance that duration of study with taking care of their family. They will also have bills to pay and can’t do without income from work for that long. Not everyone begins study at 18.

    I agree that most people aren’t equipped to make career decisions at 17; however, I think the more it becomes accepted that your first career decision does not have to be your last one (and, in fact, that some people may change careers several times in their lifetime) the easier it will be to accept that it’s not so important to get it right the first time.

    • Al Says:


      Does the masters phenomenom also cast a light on the failure of 2nd level to deliver the goods so that 3rd takes up the slack and what could or should have been done in a BA gets pushed up to the masters?

      If there be any validity to the above statement, then the next question is whether this is a efficient use of resources;;;;

      • wendymr Says:

        I agree that there is an issue of standards (mainly due to teaching and examining styles) in second-level. But the demand for Masters-level qualifications has much more to do with a ‘because they can’ mentality than academic standards. The situation is that there are too many job applicants with BAs/BScs now, so how can we (employers) choose between them? Let’s ask for Masters instead.

        The same thing happened years ago when jobs that really did not need, in terms of essential skills, more than secondary education suddenly required a degree: employers raised the bar. I remember seeing in the 1980s publishing houses advertising for data entry or reception positions and asking for bachelor’s degrees.

        • Al Says:

          One of the bones I chew on is our poor understanding of skills and skills development.
          What claim can be made on skillfulness by 2 and 3 level students?

  2. Al Says:

    One could argue that there is an ‘education bubble’ in the market, partially due to a lack of rentable accomodation, no sorry, a lack of jobs.
    If there was a correction in the market, fees for example, or an inability of the funding provider, the state, to meet the costs, then, would there be a crash?

  3. Vincent Says:

    It will be nothing special for those that have one. But what about the 28% that are left. Ammunition for another programme like ‘Shameless’.

  4. Kevin O'Brien Says:

    I agree. Things just change to quickly now. Who heard of data mining / Analytics ten years ago?

    Though I would advise any school leaver who is unsure what path to take to consider maths as a default college choice.

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