6 Jul 2017

Masters of Useless

NB: I originally wrote this for The Guardian's Academics Anonymous, but they passed. I am publishing it now because our students are graduating today, and they may want to think about incentives before they rush into masters programs. My thoughts here have nothing to do with official policy or perspective at Leiden University.

Millennials (born 1985-2005) should pay attention to 2002 and 2007. The first year coincides with implementation of Europe's Bologna Accords harmonizing higher education standards into three-year bachelors and one- or two-year masters programs. For some European countries, this meant chopping their traditional, longer programs for first university degrees into separate bachelors and masters degrees. Future students would be encouraged to take one degree in one university and their second -- should they not take a job -- at another university. This reform promised students a greater diversity in their education as well as graduate titles more familiar to North American academics and employers.

The year 2007 is important as the first year of the Great Recession, a time of falling housing prices, market panics, and political turmoil. For Millennials, the Great Recession has been a true disaster: under-25 unemployment rose faster than already intolerable average unemployment rates. Young graduates got to choose among unpaid internships, zero-hour temporary contracts, and staying home. Many bachelors graduates faced competition from masters graduates for the same jobs. Even worse, their parents -- the ones who had earned traditional, "rigorous" 6-year degrees -- didn't respect their training or ability.

You can see how going back for a masters looked like a good choice. It is thus unfortunate that these students may have getting a worse education than the university's promised or they expected.

The Bologna process meant that bachelors programs needed to recruit two cohorts of students every 6 years to maintain their budgets. This pressure meant that over-worked staff are more likely to promise what they cannot deliver. They could let bachelors students have an easy pass, since "the masters program is where you really finish your qualification."

Masters programs, likewise, needed to accept many applicants to pay for their programs -- and they  had to recruit an entire student body every year or two. Would they make sure that masters students worked hard and earned their degrees? Not if they were trying to fill seats. It was easier to let the students pass (even award them honors!) because every -- and any -- graduate provided revenue. So they started more and more masters (over 1,000 in the Netherlands), each promising a bold, keyword-laden future.

Who is responsible for who when reciprocation is unclear?
In the past, it had made sense to invest in relationships, training and reputation because the university and student worked as partners. The addition of a third wheel added well-known friction to those dynamics.

Turning from the administration, how did students and professors respond to the reforms?

For students, the logic was easy. They needed masters degrees and they were being praised for "excellent work." Some of them wanted to make sure they got a good education that would lead to good job, but how would they know? Their inexperience works against them.

Professors might have had more perspective on these changes, but they carried their own burdens. Some had to raise more funding, others needed to do more marketing of the school (or themselves). Everyone needed more (often worse) publications. The only students worth their time where PhD students (with funding!), so teaching took the hit. Could they do more to help their students find jobs? Maybe, but perhaps that was someone else's job? Their divided priorities mean lower quality teaching.

So now we arrive at a rising threat to educational excellence, with students getting shunted through shoddy bachelors and masters programs by universities trying to fill seats, professors worried about other things, and parents hoping  their children would learn find jobs. What about employers and taxpayers? Employers are displeased by the need to sort through indebted, entitled, needs-a-bit-of-finish youngsters. Taxpayers surely worry that their earnings are directed to keyword-laden uselessness. But neither group is in charge of education policies or decisions.

How are the students doing? Some are blithely sailing through the wreckage, as the young can. Some are betrayed and poorer. The majority are probably complaining via memes to their social networks -- an ironic way to complain as social networks are pretty bad for organizing the collective action that the young would need to take to force educational bodies to deliver value rather than marketing.

Bottom Line: Students need to take time to find the right masters program because nobody else is going to help them make that choice. Then they need to suck all the learning and advice they can get out of that program that they can, as the programs are designed for mass consumption, not individual achievement. The penalty for poor choices is not just a bad education given to the wrong people by programs that do not deserve to exist at the expense of taxpayers, but a false start to a young life that needs all the help it can get.


  1. How do you know it's the right masters program?

    What are the indicators that the program is challenging enough to make the learning real and that the instructors are truly invested in the students' success on the job market? In practical terms, what information should I look for about a particular masters program in order to decide if it's worthwhile (apart from fit with my interests and current qualifications)?

    1. Sit in classes as a guest student, nyerview orofessors (potential advisors), read graduates theses and MOST IMPORTANT talk to current and former students about their experiences.


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