This blog was contributed by Dr Susan Smith, Associate Dean (Education and Students) at the University of Sussex Business School.
Taught postgraduate programmes are increasingly popular in the UK with 628,000 enrolments in 2020/21 and they now comprise 27 per cent of annual enrolments to higher education. The largest contributor to this category is taught masters programmes where enrolments have increased by 51 per cent over the last five years, in contrast to a 13 per cent growth in undergraduate enrolments. Postgraduate study represents both a personal and a financial investment for students. The fees vary widely yet the current loan for UK postgraduate students is capped at £11,570. International students can generally expect to pay more than UK students.
With so many students undertaking postgraduate courses, it is surprising that comprehensive sector data is lacking. This means that there is limited transparency around the student experience and outcomes raising questions whether the awarding gaps witnessed at the undergraduate level are compounded or whether they in fact narrow as students become increasingly acculturated to academia. Whilst disciplinary research has found that inequalities at the undergraduate level were reproduced at the postgraduate level e.g. in medical education, the lack of data limits the insights that can be derived.
Who enrols on postgraduate taught programmes?
Data from the Higher Education Statistical Authority (HESA) offers some insight into the composition of the postgraduate taught student body, including age, gender, ethnicity of home (i.e. UK domiciled students), the overall percentage of international students and the subject aggregator (a method for grouping subjects). The Business and Management category is significantly larger than other subject groupings and accounted for 23 per cent of student enrolments in 2020/21. The next largest category was subjects allied to Medicine, which accounts for 13 percent of students. The student body is increasingly international and 34 per cent of the student population are non-EU domiciled. However, the student mix varies significantly across subject groupings and the largest subject areas for non-EU postgraduate taught graduates in 2020/21 were Business and Management (68 per cent), Engineering and Technology (67 per cent) and Mathematical Sciences (64 per cent).
What are their outcomes?
Importantly, outcomes data are not part of the HESA dataset so there is no sector-level view. This is problematic as institutions cannot benchmark to others in the sector, student expectations cannot be set, and the regulator does not have a view as to whether the worrisome grade inflation seen at undergraduate level persists at the postgraduate taught level. It also means that it is unclear whether the awarding gaps identified at an undergraduate level persist. Without visibility, it is hard for the regulator to form a view of postgraduate taught education.
What is known about their experience?
Progress has been made to initiate a sector-wide student experience survey. Following an initial pilot in 2019, the Office for Students is running a voluntary pilot with a number of institutions in April and May 2022. However, this leaves the Advance HE Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey (PTES) in an uncertain position should the Office for Students proceed with a sector-wide survey. PTES has been running for more than 10 years but unlike the NSS the survey isn’t universal, and the detailed results are not published by institution and subject grouping, limiting the ability to generalise from the data.
How do postgraduate taught programmes support widening participation?
Given the lack of visibility around postgraduate study, a 2021 report by the Sutton Trust called for data to be made available on access and outcomes and for it to be made public. Such data would support the tracking of progress towards broadening access to postgraduate study enabling the sector to benchmark and measure progress in this area.
Will a postgraduate taught qualification improve employment prospects?
The Sutton Trust report found that masters degrees are becoming increasingly relevant to career progression, largely due to the expansion of undergraduate education. This has been echoed by PTES results and a recent Institute of Fiscal Studies report on UK student earnings following postgraduate study. The IFS identified significant variation in postgraduate returns linked to the student’s prior subject at undergraduate level and also their subject selection at postgraduate level with taught masters degrees in law, economics and business yielding particularly high returns for students. Increased transparency around the relationship between undergraduate and postgraduate study is an important input to the decision-making process for prospective students.
Publication of underlying data about student outcomes is urgently required to unlock greater insight into this rapidly growing area of higher education enrolment. Students deserve a similar focus on their programmes of study and their educational experience as is currently afforded to undergraduates. Increased transparency would also help focus practice and research insights including those related to transitions to postgraduate study, establishing belonging in postgraduate cohorts, and contributors to student success.