Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Growth in UK’s postgraduate sector driven by overseas students

  • 21 January 2010

Major study of UK postgraduate landscape focuses on the dominant shifts in trends of postgraduate education since 2004

Emerging findings from a leading study commissioned by the British Library and Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) into postgraduate education, focuses on current numbers of students, profiles and trends, regional disparities and costs and benefits. Updating an earlier study produced in 2004, it will provide vital information in support of the Government’s current review of postgraduate education.

Key findings of the report include:

  • Student numbers – The postgraduate sector has increased by 12% since 2002-03, with the biggest growth area in masters’ degrees by 27%.
  • International students – the big driver of the growth in the postgraduate sector has been from overseas students: 50% of masters’ students and 44% of doctoral students are from overseas. UK postgraduate students have only increased by 3% since 2002-03.
  • Gender – Women now outnumber men by 60:40 in postgraduate study, and even in research postgraduate study, where men remain in a majority, women now make up 48% of the student population (up from 45% in 2005).
  • Salaries – Pay premiums of postgraduate study have decreased and are now closer to salaries of those with first degrees.
  • Jobs – 94% of postgraduates are more likely to get a role in the professions compared to 78% of undergraduates.

Joanna Newman, the British Library’s Head of Higher Education, said: “The findings of ‘Postgraduate Education in the United Kingdom’ study provides a fascinating overview of the current trends, issues and challenges facing the postgraduate sector. The growth of the international postgraduate community and increase in women undertaking postgraduate study demonstrates the leading role the UK is playing in the postgraduate sector. This is helping to create an international market place for research students who collaborate to contribute hugely to the UK’s research output, knowledge economy, innovation and economic advancement. However, this report also raises issues and challenges that the academic community faces, such as rising fees, number of UK domiciled postgraduates and salary premiums. All these issues need to be addressed to ensure the sustainability of the UK’s competitive postgraduate offer.”

Bahram Bekhradnia, Director, HEPI said: ”This report of the current state of postgraduate education, describes a diverse, growing and successful sector. It is produced against a background of an official review of postgraduate education, being undertaken by Professor Adrian Smith (Director General of Science and Research at the Department for Business Innovation and Skills). It suggests that the issues that the review will need to take into account include the encouragement of doctoral study by UK-domiciled students; whether the present level of concentration of postgraduate research students is appropriate; and the question of the assurance of standards, including in relation to offshore provision (and the associated need to ensure that the nomenclature and levels of courses are not misleading).”

Over 270,000 students enrolled for a postgraduate course in 2007-08, with the sector seeing growth of 27% in masters’ degrees and 9% in doctoral degrees. These domestic growth rates however, are much lower than those of students from overseas and now 50% of masters’ students and 44% of doctoral students are international students. This recognises the strength of the UK’s research base but also demonstrates the need to encourage more UK based students to undertake postgraduate study in the UK.

With more women than men, amongst UK-domiciled students, undertaking postgraduate study, these figures highlight the increasing accessibility of UK academia. Women now undertake 57% and 62% of all full-time and part-time postgraduate degrees respectively. Further, with science subjects such as engineering and technology, biosciences and physical sciences dominating the postgraduate arena, this reflects the support provided by Research Councils and other institutions.

The report also highlights the issue of fees and costs for postgraduates. The increase in masters’ fees appears not to have acted as a deterrent, with the number of masters’ students continuing to rise. However, fees for overseas students have increased at an even faster rate, between 37-46% depending on the subject, which may in the long-run prove problematic for institutions trying to attract overseas postgraduates.

Although postgraduates do achieve higher salaries on graduation, salary premiums have decreased slightly, with salaries of those with first degrees now closer to those with postgraduate degrees. However, postgraduates are far more likely to enter the professions: 3.5 years after graduation, 94% of postgraduates are employed in the top professions, compared to 78% of undergraduates. Therefore, postgraduate education needs to remain economical if policies aimed at widening access to the professions are to succeed in making top jobs available to those from less economically advantaged backgrounds.

Joanna Newman concluded: “Reports such as this and the British Library and JISC’s report into the digital research patterns of Generation Y academics demonstrates that we are working hard to understand the needs and requirements of postgraduate students in this digital research age. We are seeing major shifts in the postgraduate sector and this information will add much concrete detail to our understanding of postgraduate’s changing needs over the coming decade.”

Postgraduate Education in the United Kingdom was developed from data, research and documents provided by academic institutions such as HESA, HEFCE, HECSU, OECD, Vitae, RCUK, NPC, UUK, QAA, Public Goods and the Association of Graduate Recruiters. Further evidence was provided by government papers and documents from various consulting organisations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *