Working for Different Masters

Quite a few times recently, current and prospective students (or parents thereof) have asked me what the difference is between the different forms of Masters degrees that you can get in the United Kingdom, chiefly the distinction between an MSc  and one of the variations on the MPhys or MMath we have here in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences here at the University of Sussex. I have to admit that it’s all very confusing so here’s my attempt to explain.

The main distinction is that the MSc “Master of Science” is a (taught) postgraduate (PG) degree, usually of one (calendar) year’s duration, whereas the MPhys etc are undergraduate (UG) degrees usually lasting 4 years. This means that students wanting to do an MSc must already have completed a degree programme (and usually have been awarded at least Second Class Honours)  before starting an MSc whereas those doing the MPhys do not.

Undergraduate students wanting to do Physics in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex, for example, can opt for either the 3-year BSc or the 4-year MPhys programmes. However, choosing the 4-year option does not lead to the award of a BSc degree and then a subsequent Masters qualification;  graduating students get a single qualification usually termed an “integrated Masters”.

It is possible for a student to take a BSc and then do a taught MSc programme afterwards, perhaps at a different university, but there are relatively few MSC programmes for Physics  in the UK because the vast majority of students who are interested in postgraduate study will already have registered for 4-year undergraduate programmes. That’s not to say there are none, however. There are notable MSc programmes dotted around, but they tend to be rather specialist; examples related to my own area include Astronomy and Cosmology at Sussex and Astrophysics at Queen Mary.  To a large extent these courses survive by recruiting students from outside the UK because the market from home students is so small. No department can afford to put on an entire MSc programme for the benefit of just one or two students. Often these stand-alone courses share modules with the final year of the undergraduate Masters, which also helps keep them afloat.

So why does it matter whether one Masters is PG while the other is UG? One difference is that the MSc lasts a calendar year (rather than an academic year). In terms of material covered, this means it contains 180 credits compared to the 120 credits of an undergraduate programme. Typically the MSc will have 120 credits of courses, examined in June as with UG programmes, followed by 60 credits worth of project work over the summer, handed in in September, though at Sussex some of our programmes are split 90 credits coursework and 90 credits of project.

The reason why this question comes up so frequently nowadays is that the current generation of applicants to university (and their parents) are facing up to fees of £9K per annum. The cost of doing a 3-year BSc is then about £27K compared to £36K for an MPhys. When rushing through the legislation to allow universities to charge this amount, the Powers That Be completely forgot about PG programmes, which have accordingly maintained their fees at a similar level. For example, the MSc Astronomy at Sussex attracts a fee of about £5K for home students and about £15K for overseas students. These levels are roughly consistent with the UG fees paid by  home students on the previous fee regime (approx £3.5K per annum, bearing in mind that you get 1.5 times as much teaching on an MSc compared to a year of an MPhys).

Being intelligent people, prospective physicists look at the extra £9K they have to pay for the 4th year of an MPhys and compare it with the current rate for an entire MSc and come to the conclusion that they should just do a BSc then switch. This seems to be not an unreasonable calculation to make.

However, there are some important things to bear in mind. Firstly, unlike UG programmes, the fee for PG programmes is basically unregulated. Universities can charge whatever they like and can increase them in the future if they decide to. See, for example, the list at Sussex University which shows that MSc fees already vary by more than a factor of four from one school to another. Incidentally, that in itself shows the absurdity of charging the same fee for UG degrees regardless of subject…

Now the point is that if one academic year of UG teaching is going to cost £9K for future students, there is no way any department can justify putting on an entire calendar of advanced courses (i.e. 50% more teaching at an extremely specialist level) for less than half the  income per student. The logical fee level for MSc programmes must rise to a mininum of about 1.5 times the UG fee, which is a whopping £13.5K (similar to the current whopping amount already paid by overseas students for these programmes). It’s therefore clear that you cannot take the current MSc fee levels as a guide to what they will be in three years’ time, when you will qualify to enter a taught PG programme. Prices will certainly have risen by then.

Moreover, it’s much harder to get financial support for postgraduate than undergraduate study.  MSc students do not qualify for student loans as undergraduates do, for example. Also the MSc fee usually has to be paid in full, up front, not collected later when your income exceeds some level. Some PG courses do run their own bursary schemes, such as many of those at Sussex, for example, but generally speaking students on taught PG programmes have to find their own funding. On the other hand,  undergraduate students often qualify for generous packages, including fee waivers and reduction in accommodation, especially if they qualify for support for widening participation, such as the “First Generation Scholar” scheme at Sussex.

I’d say that, contrary to what many people seem to think,  if you take into the full up-front fee and the lack of student loans etc, the cost of a BSc + MSc is  already significantly greater than doing an MPhys, and in future the cost of the former route will inevitably increase. I therefore don’t think this is a sensible path for most Physics undergraduates to take, assuming that they want their MSc to qualify them for a career in Physics research, either in a university or a commercial organization, perhaps via the PhD degree, and they’re not so immensely rich that money is no consideration.

The exception to this conclusion is for the student who wishes to switch to another field at Masters level,  to do a specialist MSc in a more applied discipline such as medical physics or engineering. Then it might make sense, as long as you can find a way to deal with the need to pay up-front for such courses.

There are indications that the government might be planning to introduce student loans for postgraduate degrees similar to those currently offered for undergraduates, but for me that would only make sense if the fees were to increase as described above, so this would not be an entirely positive move (to say the least).

In conclusion, though, I have to say that, like many other aspects of Higher Education in the Disunited Kingdom, this system is a mess. I’d prefer to see the unified system of 3 year UG Bachelor degrees, 2-year Masters, and 3-year PhD that pertains throughout most of continental Europe. To colleagues there, the system of two types of Masters degree looks like a complete mess.  Which it is. In fact some countries do not accept out integrated Masters as preparation for a PhD at all.

P.S. In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out an even worse anomaly. I did a 3-year Honours degree in Natural Science at Cambridge University for which I was awarded not a BSc but a BA (Bachelor of Arts). A year or so later this – miraculously and with no effort on my part – turned into an MA. Work that one out if you can.

4 Responses to “Working for Different Masters”

  1. “I’d prefer to see the unified system of 3 year UG Bachelor degrees, 2-year Masters, and 3-year PhD that pertains throughout most of continental Europe.”

    Isn’t the UK a signatory of the Bologna agreement? One if its main purposes was to do away with confusion such as this. (For the record, I admire the goals of Bologna, but the implementation in many countries has actually worsened the situation, in some cases because Bologna was used as an excuse to institute some “reform” which otherwise would have been impossible to get through.)

    3+2+3 is the Bologna idea, but some countries have implemented this relatively recently. In particular, in some countries the rough equivalent of the Bologna bachelor was just an internal check-on-progress degree and had no meaning outside the university.

    • telescoper Says:

      The UK is indeed a signatory to the Bologna agreement, but successive governments have done bugger all to comply with it.

  2. It is also possible to study for a MRes…

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