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Artillery Row

The rise of the panic masters

Why today’s graduates want to stay at university forever

The phenomenon of the “panic masters” hasn’t died with the pandemic — if anything, the term is set to become a permanent addition to the student lexicon.

 The charge of enrolling in one (also known as a “procrasta-masters”) is being levied at the latest crop of post-grads, generally by unsupportive parents or peers who signed away their twenties to American law firms. As graduation nears, they sneer that “snowflake” students are making last minute applications to MA programmes to keep putting off the day they have to venture out into the “real world”. 

This year half a million students will be finishing their undergraduate degrees. But the paths post-pandemic graduates are choosing are markedly different to those of their predecessors. They are opting to stay in education, and they are doing so in droves. The latest data shows a 16 per cent increase in postgraduate students, and there are no signs of this changing soon. The “panic masters” are here to stay. I should know, I am doing one. 

Grinding post-graduate courses are also over-subscribed

Can you really blame us? Students finishing finals this week will have missed well over a year of “normal” university life because of Covid, and rightly feel that they are losing out. I packed up my second-year college room for what I thought was an Easter holiday, never to return to a restriction-free campus. For months, two weekly Zoom tutorials in my childhood bedroom constituted the entirety of my university experience. So for those students who enjoy studying, the decision to recoup their lost library hours is entirely understandable. 

I also fear it would be irresponsible to release these Covid-era graduates straight into the workplace. Most education really happens beyond the lecture theatre, library or chapel: the ability to survive a two-hour Metaphysics tutorial, having skimmed the wrong week’s reading in a hungover daze. The talent for sincere apologies to porters who have collared you “getting a bit lost”. The discipline to accept “it probably was my mistake” when challenged by a seven-foot varsity star in a crammed pub. 

These are crucial life-experiences which university towns are purpose built to provide — the “soft-skills” that your future employer will hope to inculcate through ghastly team-building away-days. Tomorrow’s graduates will have limited understanding of such experiences. Before you invite that fresh-faced grad-scheme analyst to the boozy office summer party, consider the HR liability posed by someone who hasn’t gone through the messy rites of passage you endured as a fresher. Perhaps it’s safer to defer their job offer, encourage them to take that MA in Byzantine Studies, and benefit from a more worldly, rounded colleague a year later. 

It should be pointed out that the destination of panic masters students is not exclusively the arts. The most joyless, grinding post-graduate courses are also over-subscribed. Record numbers of students are queuing up for MBAs, MScs, GDLs and the host of other intimidating three letter acronyms that can get you a job.

Gone are the days of waltzing into your dream workplace with a 2:1 “Russell Group” degree. To beat the backlogged international competition, you must now be armed with a CV the size of an IKEA catalogue. Given that almost all “spring weeks”, grad-schemes and summer internships were slashed over the last two years, the ability for recent graduates to compete without a vocational masters is nearly impossible.

Who’s picking up the tab for all this profligate pedagogy?

How can the job market be so intimidating when the Prime Minister proclaimed only last month that for the first time since records began “there are fewer unemployed people than job vacancies”? Well, it’s worth asking where these vacancies are. Certainly not on the Prime Minister’s payroll, after he recently decided to scrap (or “pause”) the most popular graduate recruitment scheme in the country: the Civil Service “fast-stream”. Instead, the Governor of the Bank of England and part-time Nostradamus, Andrew Bailey, has suggested that the available jobs are more likely the product of Long Covid absences, or staff afraid to return to in-person work, than the creation of genuinely new jobs. 

Ironically, students don’t need an MSc in Economics to share this cynicism about the current labour market. Employment figures are widely accepted to lag behind other growth indicators. As the cost of living continues to balloon, demand must take a hit, slamming the brakes on hiring rounds and forcing wages to slip further behind inflation. These sorts of headaches have encouraged several of my friends to mothball their first-class humanities degrees to retrain as doctors, banishing fears of unemployment for another six years (and, they hope, forever). 

Who’s picking up the tab for all this profligate pedagogy? Three groups: the taxpayer, parents and international students. The average tuition fee in the UK for a classroom taught masters is now £9000, and £17,000 for international students. In 2016, the government introduced the first postgraduate masters loan, styled on the “graduate tax” for undergrad fees. This provides MA students with up to £11,570, payable once your salary exceeds £21,000. 

So next time you meet a 21-year-old embarking on a “panic masters”, in all likelihood, you have contributed more to their fees than they have. Many parents pay the fees upfront, hoping to liberate their child from the threat of floating interest rates. For certain types of families this is a small price to pay to avoid the return of their child to the family home. 

What’s next for Britain’s graduates who aren’t ready to leave university? Perhaps we’ll end up like the Europeans and refuse to leave university before our thirties. Give it a few years and I fear we will have our first crop of “procrasta-professors” or perhaps “panic doctors”.

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