After some training on why students choose postgraduate study a colleague turned to me and asked, “So why did you decide to do it?”
The simple answer is that I love literature and language, and I relish the chance to discuss them in depth. The more complicated answer is that I’m not one of those people who had their career mapped out, so while a degree in English apparently allows you to do anything (or so I was told when I graduated) it doesn’t much narrow down the choices, and most of my employment so far has involved discovering what I want to do and what I’m good at (not always the same thing).
Regrettably the cost of education these days makes experimentation and re-training a luxury. Undergraduate tuition fees pretty much tripled in the UK as of last September, and I strongly suspect postgraduate fees will follow, even though figures show that fewer UK students are progressing to postgraduate study, largely and ironically, in my opinion, due to the lack of funding available to them.
I was lucky enough to find a University which allows students to pay by the module for a postgraduate qualification in a subject that interests me. Other family members and friends have not had that luck. Competition for funding awards is fierce and with universities having to prove the value of their research, much harder to quantify in Humanities subjects, it’s not unlikely to be squeezed even further.
Once there is a cost attached, people of course start looking for linear outcomes: “What will that allow you to do then?” I’ve been asked by well-meaning relatives, as though employers regularly list ‘Postgraduate qualification in Literature and Spirituality’ in their person spec. “Once you’ve explained how the author does what he’s doing isn’t that it?” I was asked about literary criticism on another occasion. Um, yes, if you want an A-level that is all you need do. All of which conspires to leave me feeling like the eponymous hero in Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle:
What he would have liked at that moment would have been to see himself walk in, and slap him on the back and say (with obvious sincerity): ‘Absolutely magnificent! I see what exactly what you are getting at. Do get on with it, and don’t bother about anything else! We will arrange for a public pension so that you need not.’ However, there was no public pension.
I’ve mentioned that I plan on returning to postgraduate study eventually, so I will be watching changes to postgraduate fees and funding with interest; and hoping to win the lottery in the meantime.
If you’re interested in this subject I highly recommend Stefan Collini’s book What Are Universities For? Good overview of the impact of recent UK HE changes on Humanities subjects.