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Following on from the undergraduate student trends webinar held in April, this week IDP Connect delivered a second webinar focusing on the UK Postgraduate Demographic, how it ties into student recruitment this year, how it is likely to change and behave in the future. and how institutions can best meet the needs of this critical group of students. What follows is an overview of what was covered in that webinar.

The webinar began with a more general policy overview from Aaron Porter, Associate Director of Policy and Engagement at IDP Connect, to provide a broader context from which to explore the data and findings later in the webinar. Beginning with policies which affect both undergraduate and postgraduate recruitment, Aaron identified key governmental decisions and their implications for the sector, such as a lack of additional funding for HE providers despite the challenges of the coronavirus, the 5% increase cap on domestic student recruitment, and changes to how tuition fees are paid to institutions this year. While some of these changes are welcome, it was pointed out that they are largely reliant on an assumption that the university will have managed to receive students, so only assist institutions who have successfully recruited this year. The focus for this year, Aaron concluded, must therefore be on recruitment.

Aaron made the solemn prediction that, while there is hope that we may not lose any Higher Education providers as a result of these challenging times, it seems inevitable that some schools or courses will close, either temporarily or indefinitely.

However, Aaron finished his sector overview with more positive analysis of findings emerging from the recent HEPI report, highlighting the growth of Postgraduate applications over the past ten years, the fact that the majority of UK postgraduates come from within the UK, and historic trends which suggest an ongoing trend towards increasing numbers of postgraduate students. He also highlighted the key questions of:

  • - How can institutions sustain themselves through 2020/2021?

  • - How will the current situation affect universities in the longer term? And how can they robustly plan for the future?

  • - Will the current situation lead to a permanent increase in the provision of online learning? And how can the value of online courses be proven to students?

  • - How can the Postgraduate student audience, now more essential than ever, be attracted and retained?

IDP Connect Data and Historic Comparison Analysis

At this point, Ben Farquharson Account Director at IDP Connect, took the lead of the webinar to share the findings of his research into both IDP Connect’s Postgraduate data and historic trends in postgraduate student behaviour. He began with insights from current data drawn from visits and behaviour on the Postgraduate Search site, IDP Connect's specialist site catering for students seeking a postgraduate education and trusted by 3.06 million visitors each year.

From the traffic on Postgraduate Search over the past few months, Ben highlighted key features of the effect of the pandemic and lockdown on the behaviour of the prospective postgraduate demographic. As was seen across all IDP sites, traffic on postgraduate search saw a considerable dip when WHO announced the pandemic on March 11th, which was further exacerbated when the UK went into lockdown on March 23rd. However, since the end of April and throughout May traffic has returned to higher levels than the same period last year, indicating an increasing interest in postgraduate studies and researching their options this year.

Ben went on to highlight the data demonstrating an increasing domination of the younger audience in potential postgraduate applicants, with 18-24 year-olds (which essentially covers 21-24 year-olds which we can identify as predominantly students coming to the end of an undergraduate degree) demonstrating the fastest recovery in interest and going on to far higher numbers than last year or before lockdown. In comparison, while interest in postgraduate studies did recover in mature students, that recovery was slower and has yet to exceed pre-lockdown levels. We went into additional detail looking at the changing postgraduate demographic in an article available here.

Historical Comparison:

Having covered the increasing interest and changes to the demographic itself today, Ben then revealed his research into historic data in order to contextualise the changes in current postgraduate student behaviour to be covered later in the webinar, and shed some light on what we can expect from postgraduates in the future.

Data from previous cataclysms can prove highly valuable in predicting how current events will pan out, and in the Great Recession of 2008 we can see many similarities in terms of the challenges we are facing today. While in many ways the current pandemic is unprecedented, we can find parallels in terms of some of the impacts it has had on our society, and in particular on issues such as the economy, employment, and in fact the higher education sector - particularly postgraduate courses – in the economic crisis 10+ years ago.

Given that employment opportunities are a strong driver for postgraduate studies, Ben began his research analysing the impact of the Great Recession on unemployment levels and changes in the job market. He showed that, when the economic crash and recession first hit, there was a dramatic increase in both redundancies and unemployment, which slowly recovered over the next 10 years. However, that recovery was not uniform, with the labour market moving towards a greater proportion of skilled occupations and fewer opportunities for underqualified individuals. Ben also demonstrated that this trend towards skilled labour had continued long after the recession, indicating that we are in a period of increasing demand for qualifications and skills which may be exacerbated by the current, coronavirus induced, economic challenges. As such, we can expect a greater expectation for additional qualifications by prospective employers and thus a need for increasing numbers of individuals to seek postgraduate education in order to successfully find a job.

Ben’s research also found that low skilled jobs were most at risk of automation and that young people were most at risk of losing their jobs during the great depression. All of this information demonstrates the huge incentive felt by less qualified, recently unemployed, or young individuals to upskill and get a postgraduate degree during and post an economic downturn, in order to protect themselves from unemployment and secure a future career.

Ben then went on to drill down into which subjects provided the most opportunity during and in the years following the Great Recession.


As the graph above demonstrates, while all industries decreased in job opportunities during the economic crisis and recession, health and social work not only suffered less of a dip than many other industries, it also recovered to far higher levels and was continuing in an upward trend through 2019.

This popularity may be in part put down to the focus on STEM subjects in secondary schools introduced within the last decade, which can also go some way to explaining the strong recovery of opportunities in the professional scientific and technical activities sector. Both the health and medical field and science and technology industries have seen sustained growth and opportunity over the past decade, and with the recent focus on the NHS, the drive for additional health and social workers from the government, and an increasing reliance on technology during the lockdown, we may see still further growth in these sectors during and post the coronavirus pandemic, potentially leading to an increase in postgraduate interest in these courses.

From the industries and sectors where postgraduates may pursue employment, Ben turned to look at the trends in postgraduate enrollment and subject choice. In line with what we may have predicted, post the financial crash in 2008 and 2009 there was a dramatic increase in Postgraduate enrolment which began to drop off again in 2010-2011. We also saw a sharp spike in the number of enrollments in 2016 when the introduction of the postgraduate student loan opened up the possibility of postgraduate education to a whole new demographic of individuals for whom it would otherwise have been financially impossible.

At a subject level, business studies proved very popular among this new intake of postgraduate, as did engineering, social studies and all of the sciences (including medicine), correlating neatly with the trends in job vacancies.

Interestingly, while Computer Science initially saw an increase just as there was a big social push towards that industry, it quickly corrected itself and declined again. What this data suggests is that there are different motivators driving postgraduate and undergraduate higher education decisions. While at undergraduate level there is a different kind of aspiration attached, in postgraduate applicants there is more focus on the elevation of existing qualifications and opportunities or retraining and transitioning to a new sector. As such, we are likely to be able to fairly accurately predict which subjects will prove most popular with postgraduate students by mapping the economic opportunities, and may well achieve a competitive edge by providing courses with clear professional advantages for example by incorporating work experience, internships, and networking opportunities.

While we can see how these motivators affect subject choices, they likely extend their influence well beyond to encompass their priorities when choosing an institution and their preferences regarding course delivery method. We will explore these aspects more in further articles.

What about today’s postgraduates?

Returning to the analysis of current prospective postgraduate student data, Ben began by making the point that it is still very early on, in data terms, and so difficult to make long term predictions or track trends given the constraints on the sample. However, some key features of prospective postgraduate student behaviour have arisen in the data from Postgraduate Search visits, including a significant rise in interest in mental health subjects, including clinical psychology, psychology, psychotherapy and counselling, and medical subjects such as nursing. It also appears that interest in MBAs is slightly down and architecture, which has seen an increase in recent years, has fallen significantly, whereas education courses are fairing quite well.

Although these are only short-term trends, they do suggest both that prospective students really respond to media and that the pandemic has significantly affected people's attitudes and goals in studying, influencing them to want to proactively enact change, inspiring them, and driving their motivations. Postgraduates are clearly sensitive to external factors, are driven by both career motivations and more personal or emotional factors, all of which have implications for institutions marketing strategies.

Online Delivery:

The data demonstrates changing trends in the studying preferences of prospective postgraduate students which have significance for this year's intake and the future of PG course delivery.

There has been a huge rise in interest in online course delivery, which is visible both on the Postgraduate Search site and in Google trends. While the impact and risks of the coronavirus may well be driving this interest, the flexibility it offers, coupled with the rise in quality of online courses necessitated by the coronavirus could lead to permanent, consistent and growing interest in this delivery method for postgraduate students.

Of course, how much online delivery is preferred varies considerably between subjects. Taking as example education and nursing, two fields which are proving popular at the moment, while interest in online courses for education is high and increasing, nursing, which is more practical in nature, shows a slight declining interest if offered in an online format. The takeaway here is that online delivery of postgraduate courses shows significant promise, the details and implications of which will be explored in future articles, but each subject will need its own careful approach and personalized marketing.

Ben finished his presentation with 4 key takeaways:

  • - Look at the younger PG audience

  • - Look at delivering online

  • - Look at the subjects and courses you are offering

  • - Look at new and different segments of the workforce, many of which are now looking to upskill and access new opportunities

Postgraduate Student Survey: A preview

In the final section, Anda (Alexandra) Gruian UX Researcher at IDP Connect, provided attendees with exclusive insight into the start of an ongoing Postgraduate Student Survey currently being undertaken by IDP Connect.

The survey was launched on May 13th and responses are still being collected, limiting the analysis which could reliably be drawn at this stage. However, some key trends and insights have already become apparent.

Anda began by outlining the key features of the 240 respondents to the survey at time or reporting. The majority to have responded so far are undergraduates looking to begin a postgraduate course at 41%, followed by postgraduate students looking to start another postgraduate degree, 27%, and prospective mature students looking to begin a postgraduate course, 26%.  Responses have been coming in from both domestic and international prospective students, with the majority, 71%, interested in a Masters degree, followed by PHD’s, 23%.

Medicine related subjects have so far shown to be the most popular, 26% of respondents reporting the intention to study Medicine related postgraduate courses, with education coming in second. This correlates neatly with the data and predictions drawn from Bens earlier research and suggests that the current pandemic has inspired people to follow medicine.

Most respondents also reported their intent to start their course in 2020, with some suggesting they would begin in 2021 instead.

Anda’s findings also revealed that passion for a particular topic and the desire to attain a specialism were the two biggest motivations reported, at 60% and 42% respectively, followed by the desire to progress their career at 34%. In the current context, it’s likely that a postgraduate degree might be seen as, and could certainly be marketed as, the logical next step to increase an individual's chances of employment.

More than half of the respondents reported they do not plan to change their plans in light of COVID-19. Of the 26% who reported intent to change their plans, postponing by a year is the most likely alteration.

Anda went on to highlight some of the top-level concerns that respondents were reporting, and what they want or need from institutions in order to allay those concerns before postulating that there may currently lots of interest from both undergraduates and prospective mature students looking to advance or change careers, either because jobs affected by COVID-19 or because they have more time now.

Bringing her preview to a close, Anda reassured attendees that much was yet to be seen and provided an overview of how the survey data would be further broken down and analysed in the coming weeks. Should attendees or any interested parties want to highlight certain areas of interest they would like analysed in the data, they can reach out to the team on: ukclientpartnerships@idp-conect.com

 The webinar was closed with a Q&A for attendees with key questions asked from a range of attendees and responses from the presenting panel.

The student survey, currently underway, will close on June 1st and in-depth analysis of the findings will be provided in the weeks that follow. In addition, articles taking a closer look at the topics covered in the webinar will also be provided in the coming weeks. Visit Postgraduate Search to see how we help institutions connect with the right audience and should you require more information on postgraduate student recruitment or marketing, you can visit the Postgraduate Search products page here or contact us here.

CP - Image - Headshot - Ella Grimwade - UK
Ella Grimwade28 May 2020