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Landmark report on the last decade of UK postgraduate education provides an indication of what is to come after Covid-19

  • 14 May 2020

The Higher Education Policy Institute (www.hepi.ac.uk) is publishing a landmark report, Postgraduate Education in the UK (HEPI Analytical Report 1) by Dr Ginevra House, which has been produced with the kind support of the British Library.

Looking at how the UK postgraduate landscape has changed since the last similar report was published a decade ago, the new report uses previously unpublished data to reveal the state of UK postgraduate education in the years before the Covid-19 crisis struck. Compared to the past, a higher proportion of postgraduates are female, studying full-time and young.

The analysis also considers how postgraduate education was affected by the great recession of 2008, when many people sought to gain more education in the face of economic challenges. Those who already had postgraduate qualifications also fared better than others in the labour market.

In addition, it looks at the successful implementation of student loans for home and EU postgraduate students from 2016/17 onwards.

The top 20 key findings in the 150-page report are listed below.

  1. There were 566,555 postgraduate students in 2017/18, of which 356,996 (63%) were in their first year – up by 16% since 2008/09 (p.22 and Table 2.1).
  2. Two-thirds (65%) of new postgraduates are studying for Master’s degrees, 10% are taking doctorates or other research degrees, 7% are doing teacher training and the rest (18%) a range of diplomas, certificates, professional qualifications and modules (Figure 2.1).
  3. The most popular discipline is Business & Administrative Studies (20%), followed by Education (14%) and Subjects Allied to Medicine (12%). Research postgraduates (64%) are more likely to study STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) but most taught postgraduates (68%) take non-STEM subjects (Table 2.2 and pp.26-27).
  4. Just over half of new UK-domiciled postgraduates (53%) study full-time, reversing past trends favouring part-time study – back in 2008/09, most postgraduates (59%) were part-time students (Table 2.4 and pp.32-33).
  5. More than half (60%) of new postgraduate students at UK institutions come from the UK, while one-third (32%) come from outside the EU and 8% come from EU countries. The majority of Master’s students (53%) come from outside the UK (Table 2.5 and Table 2.6).
  6. Between 2008/09 and 2017/18, UK-domiciled postgraduate entrants increased by 10% but students from overseas grew faster: EU-domiciled student numbers increased by 11% and non-EU international students grew by 33% (Table 3.2).
  7. Since the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, the number of new postgraduate students from EU countries has fallen(by 2% in 2017/18 and another 2% in 2018/19), but the reduction in the value of the pound contributed to a 10% increase in non-EU postgraduate starters in 2017/18 (Figure 3.14, p.81 and Figure 3.10).
  8. Chinese students formed 38% of the non-EU postgraduate cohort by 2017/18. Such heavy reliance on a single country exposes universities to greater risk from geo-political events (p.84 and Table 3.3).
  9. The introduction of £10,000 Master’s loans for home / EU students in 2016 had a big positive impact: UK-domiciled student numbers grew by 29% in one year and by 59% among those from the most disadvantaged areas. The loans have also encouraged above-inflation fee increases (Figure 2.22, Figure 3.11, p.80 and Table 5.3).
  10. The number of people taking Taught Master’s courses grew by 30% from 2008/09 to 2017/18, but the total has been volatile, particularly among UK students. Among all new postgraduates, justover half (51%) were full-time Taught Master’s students in 2017/18 (Table 3.1 and p.23).
  11. The great recession following the 2007/08 financial crash witnessed a marked rise in Master’s take-up, as employment opportunities were restricted and people brought forward their plans to study (Figure 3.12).
  12. The female:male ratio among new postgraduates is 60:40, or 62:38 among UK-domiciled students alone. This reflects greater female participation over time – in 2008/09, the overall female:male ratio was 55:45 (p.40 and Figure 2.12).
  13. The gender ratio varies considerably by discipline: women are in a big majority in Subjects Allied to Medicine (77%), Veterinary Sciences (72%) and Education (70%) and men are in a big majority in Engineering & Technology (78%), Computer Science (76%) and Mathematics (71%). Males outnumber females among PhD researchers (51%) (Table 2.7 and Figure 2.13).
  14. The proportion of postgraduate students aged under 30 has grown from 52% to 57% since 2008/09, reflecting a broader decline in people accessing lifelong learning opportunities (Figure 2.18 and p.48).
  15. White men, particularly disadvantaged White men, are less likely to undertake postgraduate study than others. Among UK-domiciled postgraduate entrants from the poorest areas, 64% are women and 36% are men (Table 2.9 and Figure 2.24).
  16. Women have a bigger boost to their earnings from postgraduate study, earning 28% more than women with only undergraduate degrees – the comparable figure for men is 12%. But women with postgraduate qualifications still earn 14% less on average than men with the same level of qualifications (Table 5.4 and p.120).
  17. In the last crash, employment among those with postgraduate qualifications was slower to fall and faster to recover than for those with only a first degree, which may signal how the labour market will respond to the current Covid-19 crisis (Figure 5.11).
  18. The abolition of post-study work visas (announced in 2011 and implemented in 2012) had a negative impact on demand for postgraduate study, most notably within India. The announcement that this policy is to be reversed is welcome but needs communicating quickly and clearly (Figure 3.15).
  19. Transnational education, where people take UK qualifications abroad, has seen substantial growth, more than doubling since 2007/08 to 127,825 postgraduates in 2017/18 and overtaking the number of overseas postgraduate students in the UK (p.58 and Table 2.11).
  20. Demand for postgraduate education is likely to grow over the long term: there could be an additional 22,750 undergraduates moving directly to postgraduate study by 2030 in England alone. While Brexit could mean a drop of around 11,500 EU postgraduates, successful implementation of the UK Government’s International Education Strategycould see an increase of 53,000 in other overseas postgraduates by 2030, although this partly depends on how the world recovers from the current Covid-19 crisis (pp.131-133).

Dr Ginevra House, the author of the report, said:

Despite a tumultuous decade, including the 2008 financial crash, restrictive changes to visas and Brexit, the UK’s postgraduate sector has emerged bigger and more diverse than ever before. 

However, the gains in fair access to postgraduate education – and by extension the professions – delivered by the introduction of Master’s loans may yet stall as rising fees consume most of the funds, leaving little or nothing for living costs. Other challenges to fair access remain, with under-participation by males, by White British students, and by those from less advantaged backgrounds.

When writing this report, the Covid-19 pandemic had yet to emerge, but the risk posed by universities’ increasing reliance on international students was evident. The crisis is providing a timely reminder of the importance of a diverse and balanced student body to weather future shocks to the system, supported by government policies that foster international cooperation and mobility of the world’s best and brightest.

With the shadow of a new recession ahead, combined with a rapidly changing, more automated job market, postgraduate education has never been more important, to build the highly skilled, knowledgeable, flexible and independent workforce needed to tackle the challenges of the future.

Maja Maricevic, Head of Higher Education and Science at the British Library, said:

Postgraduate students are a key audience for the British Library and we are delighted to be able to continue supporting HEPI in providing essential evidence regarding the on-going changes in postgraduate education.

The richness of the data in this report will broaden our understanding of the long-term changes, helping us to continue evolving our work to serve postgraduate students even better now and in the future.’

Greg Clark MP, who as the Minister for Universities, Science and Cities (2014-15) was the driving force behind the implementation of Master’s loans, said:

It is marvellous to find that bringing in loans for UK postgraduates has had such a big impact. To have seen a 59% increase in participation in people from the most disadvantaged areas confirms that it was right to make postgraduate study possible for people whose talents were being excluded.

Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, said:

A proper study of UK postgraduate education is long overdue, given the growth it has enjoyed in recent years and the changing demographics of postgraduates. Postgraduate qualifications are increasingly expected by employers and more people want to achieve them.

In some respects, postgraduate education now more closely resembles undergraduate study, with today’s postgraduate students more likely to be women, full-time and young. A higher proportion of postgraduate students are also from overseas.

The higher education sector is in the midst of an horrendous and unprecedented crisis that is pulling the rug from under our institutions. But the story in this report is a positive one, showing the power of higher education to do good, extending people’s options, delivering the skills employers need and pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge.

The other big positive in this report is the power of public policy to help individuals. The introduction of taxpayer-supported loans for postgraduate study has opened doors that were previously locked for many people who wanted to continue studying.

If international postgraduate numbers fall, some courses will become unviable – this is true even if there are more home postgraduates because of the higher fee levels for international students.

Notes for Editors

1. Most of the data in the new report come from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), including a specially-commissioned dataset that includes a finer breakdown of postgraduate qualification than is available in public information.

2. The Higher Education Policy Institute was established in 2002 to help shape the higher education debate with evidence. It is the UK’s only independent think tank devoted to higher education. HEPI is a non-partisan charity funded by higher education institutions and other organisations that wish to see a vibrant policy debate. HEPI’s previous report on postgraduate education from 2010, also published with support from the British Library, is still available on HEPI’s website.

3. The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world’s greatest research libraries. It provides world class information services to the academic, business, research and scientific communities and offers unparalleled access to the world’s largest and most comprehensive research collection. The Library’s collection has developed over 250 years and exceeds 150 million separate items representing every age of written civilisation and includes books, journals, manuscripts, maps, stamps, music, patents, photographs, newspapers and sound recordings in all written and spoken languages. Up to 10 million people visit the British Library website – www.bl.uk– every year where they can view up to 4 million digitised collection items and over 40 million pages.

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