The number applications for postgraduate courses at Oxford has soared this year, suggesting that students are reacting to the squeeze on the job market by opting for further study, a Cherwell investigation has revealed.
The Oxford University Graduate Admissions Office confirmed that across the whole university, over 17,000 graduate applications for entry in 2009-10 had been received. This is an increase of 25% from 13,551 in 2008-9, and of 35% from 12,582 in 2007-8.
However, Oxford has not significantly increased the number of places available, making 6,076 offers compared with 6,055 in the previous year – a rise of just 21 offers to meet over 3,000 additional applications. This means that while the success rate for applications for courses starting in 2008-09 was 44.7%, this year it was as low as 30%.
Linacre and Kellogg, both popular graduate colleges, confirmed that they had seen a rise in the number of applicants this year. While Kellogg said that it had increased the number of places it offered, Linacre said that it had not.
The Graduate Admissions Office revealed that the substantial increase in applications had affected subjects across the board. Applications for Clinical Medicine rose by 130%, for Engineering Science by 72%, for Medieval and Modern Languages by 61%, for Linguistics, Philosophy and Phonetics by 51%, and for Economics by 46%. Applications for Interdisciplinary Area Studies rose by the huge margin of 156%.
A spokesperson from the Oxford University Press Office said, “There has been a rapid rise in the number of graduate applications received at Oxford. There are likely to be many reasons for this rise, including but not limited to changes in the job market.”
Sarah Hutchinson, OUSU Vice-President for Graduates, told Cherwell, “Graduate numbers at Oxford have increased significantly over the last few years. This year, for the first time, graduate applications significantly exceeded those of undergraduates.
Presumably this is a reflection on the tough job market graduates were facing. However, increasing graduate places to meet increasing demand is not a simple process, and the University needs to ensure that any increase in student numbers does not dilute the education students receive.”
Statistics released by the Higher Education Careers Service (HECSU) last year predicted that 10% of those graduating in the summer would be out of work six months after the end of their degree courses. This prediction, coupled with extensive national media coverage of the recession and the increasingly competitive job market, seems to have led many students to apply for further study, often in the belief that a single university degree would not be enough to help them into their preferred career.
Around 10% of those applying for postgraduate study at Oxford this year were already studying at the University. Samuel Withnall, who completed a Classics degree last summer, chose to remain at New College this year. He opted to take a postgraduate course despite having secured a job offer, to raise his chances of finding more lucrative employment.
However many of his friends were not as lucky. He commented, “My flatmate did Classics at Brasenose, graduating with a good First. He wanted to do management consultancy, and applied to various places with no luck. He applied for the 2-year MPhil in Ancient History at Brasenose as a backup. He got full AHRC funding, and so took the place simply because he didn’t have anything better to do. He wishes he had a job.”
The increased numbers turning to postgraduate qualifications to escape the competitive job market, however, now find themselves facing an almost equally competitive struggle to win a place to continue their studies. Concerns have been raised about whether the rise in competition for both graduate study programmes and employment will have a negative impact on student welfare.
One third-year said, “It’s bad enough having the stress of finals to cope with – knowing that we’ll have to fight tooth-and-nail to find anything at all to do afterwards really doesn’t help.”
Francesca Wade, a second-year Classics undergraduate from Brasenose, voiced the sentiments of many of her peers. “I would consider taking a postgraduate degree, not just if I couldn’t get a job but for its own sake too. This extra advantage might well give you the edge over other applicants, and in a recession I suppose taking one is a way of biding time.”
Of those questioned in Cherwell’s survey, a significant proportion were going on to further education, and many of these had found it difficult to get places on their preferred courses. One student applied for 4 postgraduate study courses but did not receive the place he wanted. He blamed the recession for the difficulty he had in finding somewhere to study, saying, “it may have made my range of options slimmer as universities become less willing to give places.”
Of those applying for jobs, the prospect was just as daunting. One student had applied for 10 jobs over a 4 month period and received 8 rejections. Another said that he had been looking for 12 months and had applied for over 20 jobs, and also had had “mostly rejections”. He felt that the choice available to him was restricted “because most places I want to work are heavily reducing numbers and have a far larger group of people now to choose from.” All those interviewed agreed that the process of applying both for jobs and for graduate study was “fairly stressful”.
Demetrios Zoppos, Chief Executive of ‘gradfutures.com’, a website aimed at helping finalists into employment, agreed that the market conditions were proving problematic for graduates. “Statistics suggest that [the percentage of graduates entering full-time employment] could be as low as 50-60%. In recessionary years this number reduces and more choose to stay in full time education. Most students currently in university education have lived through generally prosperous times, so a downturn of this severity (and nature) can be disconcerting.”
Oxford’s Careers Service also came under scrutiny in the investigation. Over half of those interviewed said they felt that the University had been “not very” or “not at all” useful. However one interviewee praised the facilities available, “I must have been to a careers adviser three or four times, and they were always easy to book. While none can know everything about a particular vocation they helped me get a rough outline of the options available.”