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Changes in the postgraduate taught landscape in the past 10 years, and things to consider for the next 10.

  • 27 June 2023
  • By Michelle Morgan
  • Michelle Morgan, Dean of Students at the University of East London, has kindly authored this HEPI blog.

This policy piece has four key interlinking objectives:

  1. Considering the changes in postgraduate taught participation (PGT) in the UK across all domiciled groups since 2016/17.
  2. Considering the impact the introduction of the Postgraduate Loan Scheme in 2016/17 has had on UK domiciled participation.
  3. Using information obtained through a Freedom of Information request from the Student Loan Company, looking at the undergraduate debt levels of English domiciled recipients that studied under the £9k a year fee structure who also have a postgraduate loan.
  4. Outlining future considerations based on this information.

Changes in postgraduate taught study

In 2010/11, the overall number of PGT enrolments in the UK reached a peak (see Table 1). UK domiciled enrolments were across all PGT offerings (i.e. masters, PGCE, other PG) whereas for EU and Non-EU, it was almost entirely for masters.

The increase in the number of PGT enrolments was, in part, due to the rise in full-time Non-EU student participation (see Table 1). For UK domiciled students, part-time study continued to be the dominant mode. The percentage growth year on year of all UK domiciled enrolments had started to reduce in the late 2000s and this was especially pronounced with part-time enrolments.

Table 1       Postgraduate taught ‘all’ enrolments- change in growth on previous year

Figures derived from the Higher Education Statistics Agency Who’s studying in HE? | HESA

Why was the Postgraduate Loan introduced?

With the continuing decline in participation across all domiciled groups from 2011 onwards, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) launched Phase 1 and 2 of their Postgraduate Support Schemes (PSS) between 2013-2015 to fund projects and initiatives to look at ways of increasing and sustaining postgraduate participation. The main finding was that the lack of available funding was the primary barrier. The Professional and Career Development loans offered by a couple of banks were not sufficient and were difficult to obtain.

The outcome of the PSS schemes in the UK was the introduction of the Postgraduate Loan Scheme in 2016/17 but the scheme was adopted in varying forms across the four countries comprising the UK for students domiciled in their country. EU students were entitled to access the loan until August 2021 when it would stop due to the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. In England, which has the majority of PGT students in the UK, the loan, was and remains, only available to those undertaking master’s level study. Scotland, and Northern Ireland introduced schemes which covered postgraduate certificates and diplomas. Although Wales only provides funding for masters, their scheme is the most generous with funding made up of loans and grants. The postgraduate loan of up to £10,000 was designed to cover fees and provide some maintenance.

Impact of the Postgraduate Loan Scheme on UK domiciled masters’ participation between 2016/17-2019/20

As soon as the scheme was introduced, the impact of the Postgraduate Loan Scheme was felt. Immediately, many universities raised their fee levels for masters courses, and this has continued year on year as evidenced in the Times Higher Education. The Postgraduate Loan has not increased notably in the past 6 years especially in England. In 2021/2022, the loan was £11,570. In 2023/2024, it will be £12,167.

As had hoped, the level of UK domicile participation steadily grew across full and part-time modes (see Table 2). EU participation remained relatively static even with the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.  However, the notable change in the UK PGT landscape was the substantial increase in Non-EU full-time participation. Between 2016/17 and 2019/20, Non-EU full-time enrolments grew by 62.0%

Table 2          First year masters’ enrolments by domiciled status 2016/17-2019/20

Figures derived from the Higher Education Statistics Agency Who’s studying in HE? | HESA

More information is available in the HEPI report Postgraduate Education in the UK which provides detailed and informative analysis of previously unpublished data of the UK postgraduate landscape before Covid19 struck.

Changes in the postgraduate taught landscape amongst masters’ qualifications

In March 2020, Covid19 happened and it is safe to say that there was uncertainty as to what would happen to postgraduate participation (We must not forget the impact of Covid-19 on postgraduate study in 2020/21 – HEPI). What the sector experienced (and maybe surprisingly) was a dramatic rise in UK domiciled participation across both full and part-time modes of study in 2020/21 on 2019/20 numbers with an increase in 27.6% and 21.0% respectively (see Table 3). This may well have been due to study being more accessible as it was transferred online and was accompanied by lengthy lockdowns. Interestingly, EU part-time enrolments also saw an increase reversing the previous three years of decline. This may have been influenced by EU students not being able to access the Postgraduate Loan after August 2021. Understandably, Non-EU enrolment notably slowed down due to travel being restricted and as we know, part of the international student experience is about physically studying in another country.

In 2021/2022, a semblance of normality returned to higher education with in-person study resuming. Both full and part-time enrolments declined substantially for UK and EU domiciled groups but full-time Non-EU continued to dramatically increase (see Table 3).

Table 3    First year masters enrolments by domiciled status in 2020/21 and 2021/22       

Figures derived from the Higher Education Statistics Agency Who’s studying in HE? | HESA

However, if the comparison of UK masters enrolments excludes the Covid19 year 2020/21 and compares 2019/20 with 2021/22, then UK domiciled full-time has increased from 72,190 to 79,615 (+10.2%), and part-time from 51,560 to 52,650 (+2.1%) which is more in line with the pattern of enrolment changes in previous years.  

Historically, for the first time in 2021 since the Higher Education Statistics Agency started collecting data, Non-EU enrolments overtook UK domicile. In six years, first year full-time Non-EU masters’ enrolments increased by 154.0%, and part-time by 94.8%. The growth in Non-EU enrolments have primarily been due to an increase in enrolments from India (see Table 4).  Of all Non-EU enrolments, Business and Management courses account for 78%.

Table 4                                    Top Non-European PGT enrolments  

Figures derived from the Higher Education Statistics Agency Who’s studying in HE? | HESA

Change in age and UK domiciled participation

When looking at the age of UK domiciled participation, there has been an increasing shift in mode of study and age participation. In 2010/11, under 24 years of age full-time enrolments accounted for 48.0%, but by 2021/22, this had increased to 57.4% (see Table 5). Over the age of 30, part-time enrolments have remained stable with them accounting for 69.4% in 2010/11 and 69.0% in 2021/22. There has been little change in part-time study for those under 24 years of age.

Table 5   Age participation by ‘all’ postgraduate taught enrolments

The number of Postgraduate Loans provided by the Student Loans Company by year

To establish the impact of postgraduate loans since their introduction in 2016/17 in relation to the growth highlighted above, a Freedom of Information Request was submitted to the Student Loan Company. Data was provided for English and Welsh domiciled recipients, but for simplicity, only the figures for English domiciled masters, which comprise the majority of UK domiciled masters’, are presented below. Since their introduction in 2016/17, 492,697 loans have been provided. In Figure 1 below, the number of loans provided each year between 2016/17 and 2020/21 include first year and continuation recipients (e.g. part-time). The figure shown in 2021/22 is for the first year only. In this year, the first year enrolments for English domiciled students studying a masters was 105,830 (all UK domiciled was 132,265). Of these, 91,972 were granted a postgraduate loan in their first year of application which equals 86.9% of all English domiciled students. So without doubt, the Postgraduate Loan Scheme has been hugely beneficial in enabling postgraduate participation.

Figure 1                       Postgraduate Loans provided by year since their introduction

Data was sought to determine how many of those English recipients of a postgraduate loan also had an undergraduate one from 2012 onwards under the £9K a year fee structure (see Figure 2).  Looking at only 2021/22, of the 105,830 first year enrolments of English domiciled students studying a masters,  72,618  (68.6%) also had undergraduate debt accrued under the current fee structure.

Figure 2           Postgraduate Loans provided to those with UG debt          

The level of undergraduate debt accrued by masters’ recipients who also have a postgraduate loan

The data above shows a substantial proportion of masters participants have both undergraduate and postgraduate loans. The last piece of information requested from the Student Loan Company under the Freedom of Information Request was how much undergraduate debt had been accrued by those in study 2012 onwards under the £9K a year fee structure.

Figure 3 shows the debt levels for English domiciled recipients entering postgraduate masters study in 2021/22. Of the 72,618, 74.8% had debt in excess of £40,000 and 11.9% over £70,000. This debt will include any repeated years as well as longer length undergraduate courses such as integrated degrees with placements. It is important to note that undergraduate and postgraduate loans are paid concurrently, so a recipient of both will be paying 9% for their undergraduate loan and 6% for their postgraduate totalling 15.0% from their monthly gross salary over the set thresholds.

Figure 3      Debt levels of 72,618 masters English domiciled students who also have an UG loan (fee and maintenance) in 2021/22 only  

Considerations for the next 10 years

The UK postgraduate taught landscape has fundamentally changed in terms of participation in the last ten years. It is essential to understand the drivers for why this has happened to inform the next ten if we are to create a sustainable and agile market. There are several questions to ask and areas to consider.

Firstly, looking at the debt levels of English domiciled students, especially those under the age of 30, the question is whether the current fee structure at undergraduate level is sustainable not only in enabling individuals to participate in postgraduate study, but also in generating real benefit in terms of expected outcomes and actual increased salary levels. What is unknown is the longitudinal impact of this debt on disposable income through the duration of a person’s life as well as life opportunities such as being able to afford to buy a home. The current undergraduate fee and loan structure has only been in place just over 10 years so there are many unknown unknowns to quote Donald Rumsfeld!

Secondly, there are disciplines which require a master’s degree to achieve professional accreditation. Engineering is a typical example. The level of undergraduate debt may very well impact

on how one engages in future in postgraduate master’s study. Could we start to see a reversal of the current pattern of engagement with those 21-24 years of age turning to part-time study due to financial constraints? If this is the case, provision for part-time learners needs to be revisited as so often, part-time study runs alongside full-time during the day making it inaccessible.  Furthermore, it is important to note that the UK population under 18 years of age will reach its peak in 2030 so after this time, the pool from which to pull 21-24 year old undergraduates directly through to postgraduate taught study will start to reduce.

Thirdly, international students undoubtedly bring quality and richness to UK higher education as highlighted in the recent  HEPI/UUKi/Kaplan report entitled The Benefits and Costs of International Students. We also know international postgraduate study cross subsidizes the education of domestic students and research. The sector has relied on the international market for over 15 years to sustain postgraduate masters’ study in the UK.  However, for how much longer is this a viable approach for universities, in light of the recent announcement by Home Secretary’s decision to remove the right for international students to bring dependants unless they are on postgraduate courses currently designated as research programmes? Many HEI’s, especially Post 1992 institutions will be affected by this decision. Amongst the reasons provided for why this decision was made included reducing net migration and the impact of dependents on local resources.

Areas to consider

Looking at the changes in participation and the political landscape, we need to think about areas where we can create sustainability and agility but also confidence.

Firstly, universities need accurate data. Having requested data from UKVI via a Freedom of Information request on international masters students who bring dependants into the UK with them or leave with a dependant as a result of being pregnant when starting their studies, UKVI told me they ‘do not hold any of this information within its electronic case work systems and in order to answer your questions, the Home Office would have to manually inspect all such visa applications’. Without this information, universities are unable to effectively work with agencies such as health services and local authorities regarding local demand for housing, health and education.

Another source of useful and important information could come via the introduction of a compulsory Universities and Colleges Admissions Service for postgraduate study. It was trialled a few years ago but very few universities engaged with it, so it was abandoned.  For several years, many of us have been calling for this to be reinstated as a compulsory process. This would not only collect key data to help universities plan, but it would also provide some certainty of who is going to arrive at an institution and when. At present, an applicant can accept numerous places at different universities. Although many institutions ask international applicants for a deposit (they vary in amount) to obtain a Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS), this is not guarantee that they will enrol with that institution. If a CAS is not used, the deposit will normally be refunded.  An independent body such as UCAS processing applications may also help create more confidence amongst international applicants in declaring key information such as dependants and pregnancy before entry. An applicant being pregnant is not something that is required to be declared. However, if a university does not know if a student is pregnant, it prevents forward planning to take place such as undertaking appropriate risk assessments in a timely manner (e.g. if they are doing a lab based course), and managing their progression on their course due to time off for maternity.

Secondly, having spoken to colleagues from across the sector and listened to the issues and concerns raised at UKCGE’s Annual PGT Conference in May, the substantial growth and reliance on certain markets such as India has created immediate challenges because of a lack of understanding of prior learning experiences and slowness in institutional cultural adaptation.  For example, Non-EU undergraduate degree does not always equate with the UK system, but being aware of this enables a university to put in place more effective study skills support as well as managing the expectations of engagement on entry for both students and staff. Requiring incoming students to undertake a pre-arrival academic questionnaire which they complete as a compulsory course activity, would highlight the differences on entry of prior learning experiences and expectations. It would enable universities to identify the differences in learning and teaching methods and learning etiquette and understand the potential interaction dynamic differences in the classroom due to different language and cultural experiences. A national baseline could be achieved by undertaking a national pilot. 

Equally critical is adapting support services to support Non-EU participants. If an institution knows who is coming, they can provide targeted advice and support more effectively (e.g. accommodation). When an applicant enrols, they do not need to demonstrate they have secured accommodation.   

Thirdly, how can the UK domiciled postgraduate market be adapted? How can we create different markets to widen postgraduate participation? The excellent recent report by Rose Stephenson on the Lifelong Loan Entitlement which is due to start in 2025, highlights how this approach is a major positive improvement in England at undergraduate level in enabling lifelong participation in higher education.  However, as Mark Bennett recently wrote, what does the lifelong learning entitlement mean for postgraduate study. He argues that it is important for the discussion to include postgraduate study and suggests that a student who has any funding entitlement left over from completing their undergraduate study could use it against postgraduate related study especially for postgraduate certificates or diplomas. Having looked at the current debt levels of our English first-degree graduates in the past 10 years, this would be an eminently sensible thing to do to provide flexibility. And indeed, one of the main considerations from the Postgraduate Experience Project funded under Phase 1 of the Postgraduate Support Scheme, was to provide modular flexibility to support engagement and career support, as well as delivering the needs of business.

However, this would require a dramatic change in approach by universities, especially in England, by enabling students to enrol for postgraduate certificates and diplomas that can progress to a masters qualification, rather than enrolling for a masters at the outset. In England, due to the funding scheme, most Postgraduate Certificates and Diplomas are used in a deficit way in that they as used as exit awards for those who did not achieve the masters qualification.  It would also require changes to the postgraduate loan scheme.

The recent government decision has thrown a curve ball at postgraduate study, but it is down to the sector to work together now for everyone’s interest, including institutions who have postgraduate courses already designated as research programmes, to create a sustainable and agile market that benefits the student, the institution, local and regional areas and government.

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  1. Gavin Moodie says:

    Thanx for this.

    I note that part time students are around 40% of UK students. I wonder about their study mode, and in particular, whether they are attracted to fully or partly online study.

  2. Jon Scott says:

    One feature that further complicates the picture has been the increase in the ‘undergraduate masters’ programmes, particularly in the sciences where the MEng, MPhys, MChem etc. are on the rise and which often address the need for level 7 qualifications for professional recognition.

  3. Dr Richard Meredith says:

    Regarding “Areas to consider: point two”.

    HE failing to acculturate students from different education systems creates the sociology for the related issue of academic misconduct arising from home country social pressure to succeed.

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