My recent post about postgraduate scholarships at the University of Sussex has generated quite a lot of interest so I thought I’d spend a few moments today trying to answer some of the questions I’ve been asked recently, by current and prospective students (or parents thereof).
I’ll start by explaining what the difference is between the different forms of Masters degrees in science 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. Our own MSc in Frontiers in Quantum Technology is the only such course in the United Kingdom.
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 taught 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 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 relatively low level, despite the fact that these are not controlled by government. For example, the MSc Astronomy at Sussex attracts a fee of about £6K for home students and £17K 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 costs £9K for future students, there is no way any department can justify putting on an entire calendar of advanced courses (i.e. at least 50% more teaching at an extremely specialist level) for less than half the income per student. Moreover undergraduate courses in laboratory-based sciences attract an additional contribution of around £1.4K (“the unit of resource”) paid by the government to the University concerned via HEFCE. The logical fee level for MSc programmes is mininum of about 1.5 times the UG fee, plus the unit of resource applied to full calendar year, which is a whopping £15.6K (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. I doubt if there will be a sudden step-change, but they will rise.
The picture has changed significantly since the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in the Autumn Statement last year that loans of up to £10,000 would be made available to students on postgraduate (Masters) courses from 2016/17 onwards. Welcome though this scheme may be it does not apply to students wanting to start a Masters programme this September (i.e. for Academic Year 2015/16).
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 wise 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.
Now comes the plug for Sussex. Last week the University of Sussex unveiled a huge boost to the University’s flagship Chancellor’s Masters Scholarships means that 100 students graduating this summer with a first-class degree from any UK university will be eligible to receive a £10,000 package (non-repayable) to study for a Masters degree at Sussex. There are also specific schemes to support students who are already at Sussex; see here.
I’m drawing this to the attention of readers of this blog primarily to point out that the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex is one of relatively few UK universities to have a significant and well-established programme of Masters (MSc) courses, including courses in Physics, Particle Physics, Cosmology, and Astronomy. In particular, as I mentioned above, we are the only Department in the United Kingdom to have an MSc in Quantum Technology, an area which has just benefitted from a substantial cash investment from the UK government.
Wisely, the University of Sussex has introduced special measures to encourage current Integrated Masters students to stay on their degree rather than bailing out into a BSc and taking a Masters. However, this scheme is a great opportunity for high-flying physics graduates from other universities to get a funded place on any of our MSc programmes to start later this year. Indeed, the deal that is being offered is so good that I would recommend students who are currently in the third year of 4-year MPhys or MSci integrated Masters programmes, perhaps at a dreary University in the Midlands, to consider ditching your current course, switching to a BSc and graduating in June in order to take up this opportunity. The last year of an integrated Masters consists of 120 credits of material for which you will have to be a further £9K of fees; a standalone Masters at Sussex would involve 180 credits and be essentially free if you get a scholarship.
Think about it, especially if you are interested in specializing in Quantum Technology. Sussex is the only university in the UK where you can take an MSc in this subject! This is a one-off opportunity, since (a) this scheme will be replaced by loans from 2016/17 and (b) the fees will almost certainly have risen by next year for the reasons I outlined above.
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.
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.