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I'm not familiar with the UK higher education system (I'm from a EU country) and this is confusing me a lot.

A friend of mine holds a master's degree in a completely unrelated field. He is now studying in UK, doing a so-called "conversion program" in computer science. It's a 1-year program which results in a MSc degree.

This is where I'm really confused. As the program is meant for people not having any knowledge of computer science, the subjects he's getting starts from the real basics (programming: if/else, loops,... databases, SQL: SELECT, WHERE, JOIN,...). Where I'm from, we would call this a "postgraduate" program which results in some kind of postgraduate degree. The concept of what is considered a master's degree here is that it follows up on a bachelors degree (a 3-year study), which is situated on level 7 of the European Qualifications Framework.

Currently, I'm taking a 1.5 years course on a bachelor's level in computer science as well (situated level 6), which is way more advanced than the basics he's getting and I will only receive an addendum on the bachelor's degree I currently hold already if I graduate. From what it looks like he's getting the subjects of a first year's bachelor (or undergraduate for the Americans reading this) program, still he'll be receiving an MSc degree at the end of the year.

I wonder how this is possible or how the UK education system works in this regard. This is not out of jealousy for my friend (I just hope he will be able to find a job he likes afterwards), however, he did get a little pissed off when I didn't understand how this can result in a MSc degree. I guess the UK education system is more different from ours than I thought.

Could someone shine some light on this matter? When I look around online, it seems many of these conversion programs are actually MSc programs. What are the different options for master's programmes in the UK (especially the "conversion" master's), how are they scructured and what value do they have for potential employers?

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  • What degree does he currently hold?
    – astronat
    Nov 13 '20 at 12:47
  • He holds a masters of arts, something language related. As I said, completely unrelated to computer science.
    – Bv202
    Nov 13 '20 at 16:33
  • What university is he currently studying at? For context, I am English and have been in UK academia for my whole career, and haven't come across such a course before. I would say it's very uncommon and not typical of most British MSc courses.
    – astronat
    Nov 13 '20 at 22:11
  • Is it possible to reformulate this into a specific question? Nov 15 '20 at 14:45
  • I have tried to add a more specific question, hope it's fine this way!
    – Bv202
    Nov 15 '20 at 18:57
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+50

In the UK, postgraduate degrees are broken down into two categories Postgraduate Taught (PGT: MSc & MA mostly) and Postgraduate Research (PGR: MRes, MPhil & PhD).

Generally, any 180 credit course for which a Bachelors degree is an entry requirement is referred to as a "master's degree".

In science, where it is normal to go directly from BSc to PhD without a master's degree, master's degrees generally serve 3 purposes:

  • To provide more specialist training (often vocational) than is provided in a BSc. For example we have a MSc that qualifies people to work in human genetics diagnostics labs. While were have a module that covers the same general area in our undergrad Genetics degree, this is a whole year of just that very narrow subject. Or alternatively, a student with a computer science undergrad might do a databases masters - the degree title is much narrower than the undergrad equivalent.
  • To allow people whose Bachelor's degree isn't good enough for what they wish to do in the future to obtain a better qualification. You can often do a PhD in the British system without a masters degree as long as you get a good grade. But PhDs and almost all graduate jobs require good grades (grad jobs require a 2:1 in British speak, and PhDs formally require a 2:1, but you often need a 1st these days). If you don't get the grades you need, you can do a masters degree and have another chance at getting a good grade. The other people who take these sorts of masters are overseas students who want the cache that comes with having a degree from what they regard as a more famous/better regarded university.
  • Conversion courses. You've a bachelors in one subject, but decide you want to do something different. These degrees will generally have the same title as undergraduate degrees, and often have similar syllabuses, but compressed into 1x180 credits rather than 3x120 credits. These work on the basis that most the teaching at undergraduate level is not the course specific knowledge, but the transferable skills - you learn how to write, how to read, and how to think critically at a high level. Importantly, you also learn how to learn. The assumption is that if you turn this to a new subject, you will learn that new subject much faster than you learnt your first subject. For example, I had a friend who got a 1st class BA in Philosophy, and then did a genetics master's degree.

People in the know (recruiters and PhD admissions panels) will be able to tell what sort of master's degree a particular MSc is. If you have a BA in philosophy, and a MSc in genetics, no one is going to expect you to know as much about molecular cytogenetics as someone with a BA in genetics and MSc in human molecular diagnostics, but if you were both going for a PhD in population genetics, you might be on a similar footing.

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  • Thank you for the information. I get the idea: my friend successfully completed an academic program before, therefore the assumption is he has learned how to learn/think/work/... on this level and is able to grab new topics much faster. Still, I'm a bit sceptical of how realistic it is to start with basics up to complicated topics from a completely unrelated field in just one year to the extend it can be called "master's level". It must also be pretty confusing for employers, distinguishing the different kind of master's degrees.
    – Bv202
    Nov 15 '20 at 19:38
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    I'm not here to defend the system, just to describe it. However, in my own field certainly, a general masters degree won't get you any job that a Bachelor's wouldn't. Employers are generally looking for either a bachelors degree, or a PhD, unless they are looking for a very specific degree that is only offered as a masters (see human molecular diagnostics above). Nov 15 '20 at 19:51
  • Thanks again for the clarification. It's facinating, but also very confusing, how higher education systems can be so different. Where I'm from (Belgium) it's almost the opposite situation: just holding a bachelor's degree from a research university is not worth much for employers, you're expected to obtain a master's degree.
    – Bv202
    Nov 15 '20 at 19:59
  • FYI, I have no idea why your post has been downvoted. It wasn't me.
    – Bv202
    Nov 16 '20 at 12:24
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    For completeness, it's probably worth also noting that in the sciences it's common for universities to offer a 4-year undergraduate course that leads to an "undergraduate masters" or "integrated masters" degree, typically denoted MSci or MPhys/MBiol/MChem/etc, instead of the BSc that one gets after three years' study.
    – avid
    Nov 17 '20 at 23:54
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For a worthy 1 year MSc, a lot depends on the background of the candidate. For example, recently in Ireland the state sponsored some very attractive 1 year (12-month/3 semester) MSc programmes in math modelling/numerical simulation for suitably qualified numerate graduates with a 2.1 or better. Looking at the level and pace of that curriculum, the amount of extramural skilling-up and the final semester project, I think these conversion courses are not flattering their graduates by awarding them an MSc degree. Naturally however, this qualification would never be as good as that provided by a 2 year conversion MSc course in the same field. The question then arises as to whether job candidates with a numerate (though non-math) primary degree plus a 2 year MSc in math modelling would be comparable with those with a primary degree in math/applied math and whose final year focussed on modelling. This comes down to what balance of math skill vs domain knowledge (i.e. knowledge of common areas where modelling is applied, e.g. economics, financial markets, physical sciences, life sciences, social sciences) the employer desires. Clearly, 1 year conversion MSc holders are employable but not as much so as the other two types as they have more math techniques to acquire on the job.

But I share your indignation that your modern languages graduate friend's short (albeit intensive) course should provide him with a qualification that could be seen by busy employers or colleagues as the equivalent of a true taught MSc (even over 1 year) in computer science attained by someone with a BSc in that field! That is plainly absurd and debasing to the institution granting such qualifications.

Conversion courses for people with good (> 2.1) primary degrees in any subject are common in the computer science domain. But in Ireland (perhaps also in other EU countries also) they are usually designated as Higher Diploma (or Postgraduate Diploma) in Software Development/Engineering/Data Science/etc. In reality, these postgraduate diplomas are just a baseline standard for someone wanting to be taken on as a graduate trainee by some IT company. A lot of further training is often required before they are ready for real productive work.

Despite the diversity of background by students on these courses, many of those coming from logical (philosophy/psychology), methodical (history/archaeology/sociology/life sciences) or numerate (physicals sciences/eng) primary degree courses do quite well in computing. They often want to go for higher degrees in their new field. Yet what they usually have to do after the conversion course is take an MSc course (taught + dissertation) over 2 years in some specialisation like web eng, software development/engineering/cybersecurity or data science and then, if they want to, do a PhD that builds further on what they have learned so far.

Of course, the higher education world has become very competitive in recent years and the graduate conversion 'market' is something many colleges are tapping into as its overheads are already largely covered by the undergraduate modules. I can't say that some colleges here in Ireland are not prepared to do what you have seen happening: for sure, the moral hazard to do so exists. But this practice is quite wrong. Such a qualification will be more of a handicap than a help to anyone presenting themselves as an MSc awardee in an IT discipline - areas where people's lack of proficiency and capability soon show themselves in the dynamic of the workplace.

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