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Introducing a new report on Postgraduate Education in the UK, published today by the Higher Education Policy Institute, the report’s author Dr Ginevra House, freelance researcher for Ebor Editing and Research, weighs up the prospects for postgraduate programmes and students in the wake of the pandemic.
When I started working on my second Postgraduate Education in the UK report for HEPI (the last one dating from 2010), my impression was of a sector that had weathered some big storms over a tumultuous decade, but was emerging stronger than ever.
UK-domiciled postgraduate numbers had fluctuated wildly, rising in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, as jobs became harder to find, and then dropping again, with little growth until the welcome introduction of Master’s loans in 2016/17 boosted enrolment by 29 per cent.
Non-EU postgraduate enrolment had grown strongly, with 33 per cent more starters 2008/09. But closer examination of recent trends showed that this was mainly driven by interest from China (21 per cent more postgraduates in all years of study since 2014/15), which was (just) balancing out declining numbers from other non-EU countries (down 10 per cent over the same period) . Policies aimed at curbing immigration, such as the suspension of post-study work visas, certainly formed part of this story, with applications from countries such as India declining markedly.
Brexit was also affecting numbers – apparently in both directions. EU doctoral starters were particularly dented, dropping by 9 per cent between 2016/17 and 2018/19 , while the crash in the pound – leading to cheaper fees – was likely connected to a surge in interest from non-EU countries.
Yet various developments augured well. Two major policy documents on boosting international student and trainee teacher numbers had received firm support from Boris Johnson’s new administration. Postgraduate loans had not only increased home student numbers, but given a particular boost to participation from less advantaged demographics. Meanwhile the promised reintroduction of post-study work visas, as well as that fall in the pound, seemed to be encouraging more international students to choose the UK.
And then, COVID-19 happened.
The impacts of the pandemic on higher education are being widely discussed, and the only thing that is clear is that nothing is clear. Although the physical restrictions on gathering mean the effects will be different from anything we have experienced in our lifetimes, it is worth pondering whether the findings from the last decade offer any insights as to what is to come.
Inevitably, many international students will defer or study elsewhere while travel restrictions remain in place. UK universities have come to rely heavily on international students, who represented 42 per cent of the postgraduate cohort in 2018/19, but the risks of over-reliance have come to bear sooner than anyone expected. On the other hand, strong growth in transnational education – the provision of UK qualifications to students studying wholly abroad – means that there is substantial infrastructure in place for students who can neither travel nor defer to obtain a UK qualification in their home country. It will be interesting to see whether TNE numbers are boosted in 2020/21.
But what do the findings tell us about home students? While predictions for undergraduate enrolment in 2020/21 are mainly – though not universally – pessimistic, enrolment patterns following the 2008 financial crisis suggest that postgraduate numbers may actually increase in the short-term.
So is heading straight to a Master’s degree a good idea for first-degree graduates? When it comes to non-specialist degrees (so not including those required to practice medicine, architecture or law, for example), some graduate employers have been highlighting the value of work experience over postgraduate qualifications, suggesting an advantage to spending time in the workplace before embarking on further study.
But now jobs and internships are evaporating. Furthermore, during the previous recession, employment levels among postgraduate degree holders were slower to fall and swifter to recover than among those with first degrees. As competition for jobs increases, will employers once again turn to postgraduate qualifications to narrow down applicants?
In this regard, a word of caution. The previous (2010) Postgraduate Education report highlighted that with Master’s degrees increasingly representing the gateway to the professions but few funding options, those without family support or unwilling to take out a bank loan were potentially being locked out of the top careers. Postgraduate loans were introduced to counteract this and have shown initial signs of success.
However, with Master’s fees rising by 10 per cent as soon as loans were introduced and average laboratory-based course fees currently around £9,000, they now threaten to consume the entirety of available loan (£10,906), leaving little or nothing for living costs. If this continues, the gains in fair access to postgraduate education – and by extension the professions – may yet stall.
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 equal access, international co-operation and a flexible sector that can respond to a rapidly changing landscape.
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.
 P. 80. Unless otherwise stated, student numbers are from a bespoke dataset from HESA, made available under a Creative Commons (CC BY 4.0) license and refer to first-year postgraduates.
 P. 76, Table 3.2
 P.85, Table 3.3
 P. 83, Figure 3.15
 P. 81-82, Figure 3.14
 P. 85
 P. 122
 P. 121, Figure 5.11
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