Callum, 22, graduated from the University of Leeds with a degree in Politics in summer 2019. While a brimming CV and a BA from a Russell Group uni might have once been enough to secure a grad job (relatively) easily, this was far from Callum’s experience.
Unfortunately, Callum was unable to land an entry-level role anywhere he applied - which included BT, Aldi, and the civil service. His thoughts then turned to studying for a Masters degree. “I was sort of just doing it in a panic - you know, keeping my options open,” he says. Callum then began his “panic Masters” at Leeds in Political Communication in September 2019.
Since the 2015-2016 academic year, the number of students doing taught postgraduate courses has been steadily increasing - between 2018-19 and 2019-20 alone, it increased by 10.4 percent. And it seems that even more students like Callum will be frantically signing up to Masters programmes now, due the knock-on effects of the pandemic: An Instagram poll conducted by VICE found that 39 percent of respondents felt as though coronavirus made them more likely to take on a panic masters.
After all, it’s even harder for graduates to land an entry-level job in the current climate. Under-25s have been victim to nearly two-thirds of COVID-19 related job losses and the unemployment rate for 16-24 year olds stood at 13.2 percent between February and April 2021. It’s no surprise that some grads are opting to do Masters courses just to postpone the hellishness of navigating an overcrowded job market.
“I did my masters because basically I had no idea what else to do,” 25-year-old Tamure tells me. Tamure graduated from his undergraduate degree in International Politics at Manchester Metropolitan University last summer, and like many other 2020 grads, found it virtually impossible to find a job in the middle of a pandemic and recession.
He explains that he unsuccessfully applied to PwC, the civil service, and countless other schemes: “I can’t really remember all of them because I applied to so many.” After failing to secure a job, Tamure confirmed his place on the Security and International Law MA at the University of Manchester. “There was no other option,” he tells me.
In an ideal world, graduates would only undertake Masters degrees if they were truly passionate about continuing with education. Postgraduate study is a huge commitment, both academically and financially. But in the current climate, postgraduate study is increasingly seen as a viable last resort. Tamure says he’d be working in his old job at an ASDA warehouse if he hadn’t continued studying: “It was either: do my Masters and move back up to Manny, or do a part-time job and stay at home.”
The unemployment issues which have been exacerbated by the pandemic are persisting and affecting this year’s batch of graduates too. Sanjana, 21, recently completed her degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Southampton. She’s now planning on doing a Masters in Political Science at the University of Leeds, starting in September 2021.
While Sanjana had toyed with the idea of doing a masters before, she concedes that the pandemic and overcrowded job market hugely impacted her decision. “I have applied for journalism schemes but they’re really, really competitive and take a long time to reply to you,” she says. “I’m actually still waiting to hear back from a lot of them – they’ve taken a lot of time because of the pandemic.”
Plus, as many have been cheated out of unrepeatable milestone events - with university balls and graduations cancelled - a Masters offers students a second chance at enjoying these experiences. “I haven’t been in a lecture in person since March 2020. Half of my degree has been online,” Sanjana explains. “I want to reclaim that and have a bit of fun, because I do feel like I have missed out on the uni experience.”
But are grads just postponing the inevitable by staying in education for an extra year? Tamure finishes his MA in September, yet is still in the same predicament as he was this time last year. “I still have no idea what I’m going to do after,” he tells me. “Obviously the Masters will help me stand out a bit more in applications, but every fucking person is doing a Masters now. That’s what it feels like.”
It’s essentially luck of the draw when it comes to finding fulfilling work after graduating. One in eight recent UK graduates were unemployed in the third quarter of 2020 - almost double the average rate from the past three years. But finding a job shouldn’t be a matter of luck - so what needs to change to ensure all graduates have the opportunity to find a job that they enjoy?
Impetus is an organisation dedicated to advocating for “full and inclusive employment for young people.” Speaking to VICE, Ben Gadsby, Head of Policy and Research at Impetus explains: “Young people leaving education this summer are entering a complicated labour market, with some sectors still hampered by restrictions.”
“Ultimately what young people need is the fulfilment of the promise the Prime Minister made a year ago of an ‘Opportunity Guarantee’,” he continues. “That is, targeted support to help those furthest from the labour market get into education, training and work.”
The government needs to ensure that young graduates have decent prospects and, importantly, choice. While doing a Masters is the right decision for some, and postgraduate study can be both socially and intellectually stimulating, no one should ever feel as though they’re doing one out of panic.
Plus, with the average cost of a taught Masters degree standing at £8,407 and the standard Masters loan at £11,570, a panic Masters isn’t even an option for grads who can’t cover their living costs, and can even result in students getting into debt. This has been the case with Tamure, who says that he currently owes his university money. “It’s a bridge I’ve got to cross at the end of summer,” he says.
Everyone’s experience of a panic Masters will be invariably different. On the bright side, at least for some grads doing a panic masters ends up being somewhat serendipitous. Callum certainly feels more positive about his Masters now, even if he initially signed up out of desperation. “It worked out fine for me,” he says. He now works in public affairs, and is loving his job: “I was speaking to my boss after I got the job and he basically said that [my Masters] was the exact sort of degree they wanted.”
After all, as Sanjana puts it: “It can’t hurt to have another qualification.”