In the competitive workplace where the curriculum vitae is king, ambitious workers are falling back in love with the Masters degree. Graduates who turned their backs on further study after their first degrees are returning to pick up new qualifications that they hope will give them the edge for promotion or help them find new markets for their talents.
While the number of undergraduates has almost flatlined, postgraduate qualifications are booming. The successful completion of higher degrees was up by 2 percentage points in England last year and by 3% in Scotland, while in Wales, where numbers are smaller, it reached 13%. And with the explosion of online, distance-learning qualifications over the last few years postgraduate students don't even have to leave the workplace but can interact with tutors and other students via the internet.
The growth is not coming from undergraduates progressing straight to postgraduate study but mature students returning later in their careers, according to the Higher Education Policy Institute. For them it is continuing professional development with the bonus of new letters after their names and a piece of paper they can take with them up the career ladder.
Universities say the most popular courses for these students tend to be those linked to their careers, such as the advanced use of information and communications technology in the workplace, courses in property development at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, or an MA in Information and communications Technology in Education, which is offered as a part-time and distance-learning course by the Institute of Education in London. Many of the courses don't require a first degree if the student has relevant work experience.
New courses are springing up each year as universities expand their distance-learning programmes. Though most of the work can be done at home in the evenings and weekends, students say it helps if their employers are supportive.
Andrea Birch, a graduate of the Masters in Public Policy and Management at the University of York, says her then employers, a government department, were helpful and interested in her studies, but others had a different experience. 'Some of the other students, particularly foreign students, had line managers without strong academic backgrounds who were downright hostile and made their studying lives difficult by such things as scheduling mandatory overtime during essay periods,' she says.
Since enrolling on the course she has changed direction and now works in the aerospace industry. 'What I learned has been instantly transportable and applicable to aerospace defence. I recall being asked what the course was all about at the interview. No use to us is it? I was asked. My diatribe in response was that if they didn't think understanding macro economics, global governance, informatics and public spending drivers were relevant then I'd better just leave. I got the job.'
Jane Lund, the online teaching and learning manager at the University of York, says completion rates are good