Is a graduate degree still enough?

The Sutton Trust has warned that careers which were formerly available through A-level qualifications now actively seek out those with postgraduate degrees.


Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Trust, has highlighted an additional burden for those with undergraduate degrees, noting: “An undergraduate degree has become essential for many careers. A postgraduate degree is increasingly expected.”

The Sutton Trust has warned that such a drastic change has been driven by a tripling of those holding postgraduate qualifications over the past fifteen years. The change, the organisation has stated, will be detrimental to an already widening gap between wealthier and poorer students, creating a wall of “social mobility”, and will allow postgraduate courses to become the “preserve of the better off student”, according to its chairman.

Laura Theobald, UoNSU’s Postgraduate Officer, told Impact that in fact “postgraduate study is a means of social mobility”.

However she also noted that “there isn’t a way for students to finance postgraduate study except through commercial loans and/or family backing. The NUS is shopping around a proposal for government backed loans that in the short-term will make it free to access, but long term we need to think about how higher education is made more accessible and affordable for all students at all levels”.

A postgraduate degree is increasingly expected.

Research carried out by LSE and Surrey University on behalf of the Sutton Trust has revealed that the number of working Britons aged 26 to 60 holding postgraduate degrees has now reached 11% (2.1 million people) a significant increase from just 4% in 1996. Peter Lampl has praised the increase stating “a better educated workforce should be good for Britain,” but explicitly warns “it is essential that this should not come at the expense of widening inequalities of access to these professions.”

The importance of a postgraduate qualification has been exposed by the study, which finds that those with a higher degree earned an average of £5,500 more a year. This gives them a potential “postgraduate premium” of earning £200,000 more during the length of their career compared to other undergraduates.

However Lampl estimates that graduates already facing debts in excess of £40,000 from undergraduate courses may be put off by “the prospect of funding a further £20,000 a year in fees and living costs, without having access to student loans.”

The Trust’s summary does not discourage the increasing numbers opting to stay on in education after undergraduate degrees, and even moves to encourage the trend. More importantly, the results of the study place a greater emphasis on improving a flawed funding system for talented but poorer students, and states clearly that all students should be able to make the choice of whether or not to move to a postgraduate course without worries of financing.

Aatish Thakerar

2 Comments on this post.
  • Matthew Styles
    29 July 2013 at 16:44
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    For many careers, it hasn’t been enough for years.

    Employers want candidates to be able to demonstrate skills relevant to the roles and to their organisations, many of which aren’t the focus of degree programmes.

    It’s the core skills that sometimes fall into the gap – communication at various levels, teamwork, leadership, organisation, time management, etc. Degree programmes can incorporate this where possible, but it’s not the focus of an academic programme.

    Interestingly, NUS have some internal research on cost-benefits to individuals from higher education, and men who study for an undergraduate degree financially benefit more over their lifetime than women with a PhD (after all relevant tuition/maintenance fees have been taken off).

    But the current postgraduate taught funding situation is dire. If you need a Masters to apply for your PhD or for a particular career you want to follow, a PG Masters can set you back tens of thousands including maintenance, and there’s no central loans system.

    Commercial loans are repayable almost immediately, including while you’re still studying, come with high interest rates, and rely on you being able to get credit in the first place. It discriminates against the poor, those from law-participation neighbourhoods, or people wanting to enter select career paths.

    David Willetts, the minister responsible for universities, has announced a few million to try and come up with something. To do that though, he’s cut the National Scholarship Programme (NSP) for undergraduates, which is going to remove much-needed financial support for those even starting their first year of an undergraduate degree.

    In summary, if we could start recognising how education is the greatest driver for social mobility and comes with benefits to the entire population, then a bit of investment from the government wouldn’t go amiss.

  • Nathan
    2 August 2013 at 10:09
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    To be fair, Matthew, taking a PhD probably cuts your lifetime earning potential regardless of gender, given that it leads to low- or moderately- paid academic and research work, or a postdoc, while postponing getting on the career ladder for a number of years. People don’t take a doctoral degree to increase their earning potential over having an undergraduate degree or professional qualification; they do it for love of their research topic or with the hope of working in academia.

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