Science blog

14 May 2020

New report on postgraduate education in the UK

The British Library’s postgraduate students are currently greatly missed while the Reading Rooms are closed. Meanwhile, the Library continues to support all researchers as our online collections continue to grow, and we strive to provide the latest information and essential publications for researchers working on the Covid-19 related research.

As we are continuing to think how postgraduate research might change in the weeks and months to come and how we can continue to support it, it has been encouraging and thought-provoking to read a new, extensive report Postgraduate Education in the UK by Dr Ginevra House. The report continues the Library’s collaboration with the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and a previous report from 2010 that the Library has also been involved with, thus supporting a long-term evidence of the evolving changes in postgraduate education.

The new report uses previously unpublished data to reveal the state of UK postgraduate education in the years before the Covid-19 crisis struck. Dr Ginevra House, the author of the report, explained that 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. 

Compared to the past, the new report reveals that a higher proportion of postgraduates are female, studying full-time and young. However, other challenges to fair access remain, with under-participation by males, by White British students, and by those from less advantaged backgrounds.

The analysis considered how postgraduate education was affected by the recession of 2008, when many people sought to gain more education in the face of economic challenges. The report found that those who already had postgraduate qualifications fared better than others in the labour market.

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, just over 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 Strategy could 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).

Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, commented that the report findings show that ‘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. He stressed that 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.

It is hoped that the report will provide an essential benchmark for postgraduate education prior to the Covid-19 crisis and help us measure the impact of any changes ahead, as well as provide the evidence of the value of highly skilled workforce at the times of uncertainty.

Gropu of around 15 students talking to each other and drinking coffee in the foyer of the British Library's conference centre
Students networking during a postgraduate open day at the British Library