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We must not forget the impact of Covid-19 on postgraduate study in 2020/21

  • 6 April 2020
  • By Michelle Morgan

This blog was kindly contributed by Dr. Michelle Morgan, an independent consultant with an expertise in student transitions and student experience. Michelle was the creator and Principal Investigator / Project Lead for the ‘Postgraduate Experience Project’, which investigated the expectations and attitudes towards postgraduate taught STEM study across 11 UK universities.

An earlier blog on postgraduates and Covid-19 by Bethan Cornell is here.

Understandably, due to the closure of schools and colleges, there is great concern about this year’s undergraduate intake and plenty of discussion on how to move forward. However, the impact the pandemic will have at postgraduate taught (PGT) level across the UK, especially with Master’s course participation, has largely been ignored to date.

Not only is Covid-19 impacting current PGT participation in the UK but HESA figures show a slow down in growth following the introduction of the Postgraduate Loan Scheme in 2016/17. We need to plan ahead to support PGT participation and Covid-19 will require us to finally start thinking differently.

The last five years

When the 2016/17 Postgraduate Loan Scheme was introduced, you could hear an audible sigh of relief across the sector that this would reverse the downward trend in UK and Other European Union (EU) domiciled participation that had occurred between 2011 and 2015.

HEFCE launched Phase 1 and 2 of their Postgraduate Support Schemes between 2013-2015 to fund projects and initiatives to look at ways of sustaining postgraduate study. The main outcome was the introduction of the Postgraduate Loan Scheme in 2016/17.

It is important to note that in England, which has the majority of PGT students in the UK, the loan was only available to those intending to undertake Master’s-level study. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland introduced similar schemes, some of which covered postgraduate certificates and diplomas too.

The Postgraduate Loan Scheme has helped ensure an increase of 28,845 first-year UK-domiciled Master’s enrolments in 2018/19 compared with 2016/17. However, the figure for ‘All PGT’ first-year enrolments, which includes Master’s figures, has only increased by 26,685. This is because the other qualifications included in ‘PGT’ – Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) and Other Postgraduate study, have declined in enrolments.

Although the loan scheme has proven a success, we must not just look at the headline figure of growth. The sector is still in a precarious situation because the growth, particularly among UK domiciled students (our largest market, especially in part-time study) has dramatically slowed since 2016/17 (see Table 1 below). Other EU enrolments have remained relatively static, but it is our overseas-domiciled participation that has kept the overall first year enrolments buoyant.

This pattern of slowing UK-domiciled growth is similar to that which occurred in the late 2000s and the start of 2010s, before the decline across all domiciled groups became evident by 2012/13 (as Table 2 highlights).

One concern arising from Covid-19 is that enrolments across all domiciled groups could dramatically decline in 2020. As a result, might we find ourselves back in the same situation as at the start of the 2010s, when enrolments continued to fall for five years until the loan scheme was introduced? With a loan scheme already in place, what do we need to consider and what can we do to help sustain postgraduate taught enrolments in the coming year and beyond?

  1. In the past eight years, participation of 21-24 year olds has significantly increased. HESA statistics show that, in 2010, they accounted for 47.9% of all ‘first year’ full-time PGT enrolments, increasing to 64.7% in 2018/19. This is in part, as Professor Paul Wakeling suggests, due to credential inflation as a result of high numbers of first-degree graduates entering the employment market. We have become reliant on this age group keeping our PGT enrolments high. In 2020, we have a current final-year cohort who could be disenchanted with their undergraduate student experience due to strikes and Covid-19 and decide to take a break (short or long) from any further study. They will also face uncertainty about their final degree classification due to assessments changing. This is undoubtably going to impact on PGT applications. It is highly likely that we will see the numbers going straight from undergraduate to postgraduate study reduce dramatically (Editor’s Note: for an alternative argument, see here). The UK may also go back into recession as happened in 2008/9. At undergraduate level, in times of recession participation does seem to increase. However, the substantial fall between 2011-2016 in postgraduate enrolments suggests that this is not the case at this level of study.
  2. Part-time study until 2015/16 was the dominant mode of study for UK-domiciled students. In 2010, it accounted for 60% of ‘first year’ UK PGT enrolments, but it has slowly decreased to 56.5% in 2014/15 and 50.3% in 2018/19. Undoubtedly, this has been influenced by the introduction of the Postgraduate Loan for Taught courses as well as greater participation by 21 to 24 year olds, who have chosen the full-time mode to finish their studies more quickly. Reasons behind choice of mode of study have been highlighted in numerous surveys, including the Advance HE Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey (PTES), The Postgraduate Experience Project and the Master’s Loan Evaluation Report. For EU and Overseas participants, the full-time mode has been the dominant mode for many years. Although there has been a slight reversal in actual part-time numbers since the Loan, the sector has generally continued to move to full-time delivery with part-time running alongside, which is a leading factor in the part-time decline.
  3. A response to declining home applications by many universities may be to try and take advantage of the recent increase in international participation and swell numbers which will financially help institutions. I suspect that unconditional offers will dramatically increase, but unfortunately we will not have a record of this activity as we do not have a sector-wide application system at PGT level. The reality is, we just do not know how the international market will fair as a result of this pandemic. And even if international enrolments do eventually increase, it does not come without other cost implications if we are to behave morally and with integrity in providing a high-quality student experience. This includes the provision of sufficient language support.
  4. As a sector, should we plan to move the main intake period in September/October to January in the likely event that we are unable to resume fully by the start of the new academic year? This would also encompass the January starters. To provide a similar completion time span to that of September, support for dissertations would need to happen over the summer break and there would need to be flexibility about the timing of re-sits and examination boards.
  5. Consideration of a sector-wide admissions process for PGT level study could be incorporated into the current admission reviews being undertaken at undergraduate level by the Office for Students and Universities UK As a sector, we have little intelligence about applicant behaviour at PGT level. This would be invaluable, as I have highlighted before.

2020 onwards

Covid-19 is showing that we need to start thinking differently. To help sustain PGT-level study, we need to start planning immediately for how we can evolve and deliver our offerings. Interestingly, many of the recommendations made by the Postgraduate Experience Project, funded by HEFCE in Postgraduate Support Schemes Phase One back in 2016, were designed to sustain PGT study in order to be able to ride the wave of a crisis and avoid a cliff edge through adapting delivery and creating new markets.

The recommendations included:

  • Developing dual routes. This would make courses flexible by enabling students to transfer within three months of starting a course between different types of PGT courses, thus providing pathway options for students who feel they made incorrect study choices and potentially support completion rates (for example, moving from a Master’s to an MPhil).
  • Accrediting modules not a course. This would provide the flexibility to run modules as short courses. It would also provide staged learning routes so students do not have to register for a Master’s but can enrol for a certificate or diploma and build-up to a Master’s qualification at their own speed.
  • Different study delivery. In order to expand (with limited cost) or to maintain (due to low take up) part-time courses, we could phase in the use of virtual technology so learning can be undertaken remotely. Covid-19 is the opportunity to kickstart part-time study and make participation more accessible.
  • Inter-university collaboration. Universities could spread the cost of course delivery by offering a joint qualification where each institution delivers modules. This would bring innovation across the sector together.

These suggestions may encourage employers to be more supportive of employees undertaking continuing professional development, and they could help develop sustainable strategies to widen access to PGT study and enable greater participation across demographic groups with lower participation rates (such as disadvantaged students).

Later this year, HEPI will be publishing a major review of the state of postgraduate education – our first since 2010. Sign up at the bottom of our homepage to receive it when it is published.


  1. Les Ebdon says:

    A masterly review of the outlook for the postgraduate ‘market.’ My concern would be than in a really problematic graduate employment market, many students with rich parents will decide to take a master’s course to ride out the lack of graduate employment, as the result of the impact of the virus and lockdown on job opportunities, whereas disadvantaged students do not have this option and will have to take a non-graduate job. We know from previous recessions that this will damage their career prospects for life.

  2. I share your concern Sir Les. Sadly, Covid19 has shown that some of the WP strategies will run aground at UG and PGT level. However, if we are pragmatic, we may be able to buy us some breathing space at PGT level and try to preserve the market as well as WP.

    Firstly, reduce the UG fee for all final year students in 19/20 and reduce PGT fees for 20/21 (it is important to note many universities put their fees up when the loan was introduced and have continued to do so year on year). PGT fee reduction must be for all students and not just universities targeting their alumni.

    Secondly, start in January. This will give universities the chance to effectively catch up and plan. A September start is ebbing away the longer the crisis continues anyway. It also provides thinking space for individuals (graduates and non-graduates) to consider all their options and apply in plenty of time for a course/loan without missing the traditional September start. It may also help support the international market as I suspect travel will be limited for quite a while.

    These are unprecedented times requiring unprecedented action.

  3. Ad says:

    I’m starting my PGT in Sept2020, 3 Universities have offered me places and all Bragging about safe distancing rules, online learning and reduce appearance in University but unfortunately none of these given any special fee reduction due to COVID and due to the fact that if there won’t be enough students in campus, it’ll be reduction in their expenses also, I found it rather a dirty trick by taking full support from Government and not providing any reductions in fee to students ,
    Can Govt take actions against these Universities.
    I believe this is not only tough for businesses but also for students who’re self funding the courses.

  4. Dear Michelle Morgan

    I am currently running a campaign for the increase in funding, and am meeting with the NUS president, as well as QUBSU and UUSU in the next week.

    We have had some correspondence with Diane Dodds, not particularly positive from the NI DfE but correspondence none the less.

    You can find our campaign here:

    I would love to hear from you and discus you’re thoughts on the issue, or if you had any advice as we moved forward.


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