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Before we get into my predictions for the year ahead, it is important to understand the current state of the postgraduate market and what has happened in recent years.
As soon as I wrote, “recent”, I realised how long ago 2016 was. However, let us start there. At that time, the UK had seen a multi-year dip in PG student numbers and decided to implement a strategy to remedy that via the PG loan. Upon implementation, its impact became evident from the very next intake and, as we can see from the below HESA data, PG uptake has been on an upward trajectory ever since.
Students by study level
Within that historical context, we need to understand where we are currently, and the last intake is a good place to start. This most recent intake would have been impacted by the pandemic and subsequent March 2020 lockdown and would be able to provide a glimpse into any changes.
The first thing that drew my attention, and what needs to be a focus for universities as we approach September, is that this intake is the first time students aged 24 and under made up the largest proportion of PG enrolments. Don’t get me wrong, it has been growing throughout the past 5 years, but that growth had been lessening year by year. This year, however, it has metaphorically exploded, increasing 2.3 fold.
So, what was the catalyst for this growth? Well, in a nutshell, a declining labour market and ongoing difficulties manifesting themselves in front of this age group.
Source: Source: ONS, Labour market bulletin February 2021, Table A01
From the above data we can see that 18-to-24-year-olds are the demographic that has been most heavily hit by the pandemic when it comes to employment. With the graduate job market in severe decline, why wouldn’t you opt to continue your education and try again in a year or so when you are more qualified? If we take this hypothesis as likely, it’s reasonable to assume that students will have this thought process to an even greater extent now.
Furthermore, this group of PG intenders are likely to have had a less-than-ideal university experience and therefore it’s increasingly likely that their decision to continue in education could be accompanied by a desire to relocate to greener pastures or potentially move closer to home, leading to greater numbers of postgraduate researchers and increased research.
To see whether this was the case, I looked at our audience data on www.postgraduatesearch.com, specifically demographic data for students researching this cycle (September 1st, 2020 – April 26th, 2021). I then compared it to the same period last year. What is immediately evident is the huge increase in 18-24-year-old PG researchers.
This age bracket saw the largest overall increase in researching students compared to the previous year (58,886 students) which represented a 47.41% increase. To me this highlights that where we saw burgeoning growth last year, we will likely see even greater increases this year.
Further age group analysis reveals that each age group has grown substantially year-on-year apart from one, 25–34-year-olds. This group, which has still increased by 6.7% on Postgraduate Search this year, was by far the least affected by the pandemic in terms of employment, as seen in the ONS Labour market bullet. The limited growth for this age bracket, when compared to all other ages, lends further support to our hypothesis of the COVID-19 induced job market decline driving growth in postgraduate demand. Individuals aged 25-34 are likely to have been in work when the pandemic struck and either:
(a) Far enough into their careers to not be heavily impacted by redundancies but early enough in that their focus is to remain in work or
(b) Stable within their careers and balancing other priorities, therefore unlikely to put themselves at risk by attempting to take a break for studies that would necessitate re-entering a market, which would see them severely disadvantaged, and not requiring further education to advance their careers just yet.
Looking at the remaining age brackets, their increase in research for PG courses makes quite a bit of sense. Throughout late 2020 the number of redundancies the UK faced was the highest it has been for nearly 20 years and, as we can see from the below, at this point there was a spike in research across the “working professional” age ranges. My thoughts here are that this would have been the driving force behind that.
Further to this, the numbers of those being furloughed rapidly increased as we entered 2021 and faced tighter restrictions across the country. It is likely that those who were made redundant during late 2020 and those who were furloughed through early 2021 are the main drivers behind the increase in researchers from the 35+ age ranges.
Perhaps surprisingly, we do not see this spike in late 2020 research amongst the 18-24 age bracket, which includes students in university. Possible explanations for this divergence from the wider trend could be that the main researching audience within that age bracket are likely still studying and undecided as to what their next steps are going to be.
The age bracket also includes some recent graduates who had already made the decision not to pursue further education but have been impacted by COVID-19 and are still trying to re-enter the job market. Postgraduate research was not their priority at that point. However, when we look over a longer period we can really see where growth comes from for this age bracket.
As we approach January, we start to see a resurgence from this audience. According to the IFS, between December 2020 and January 2021 there were c. 600,000 job vacancies. This was a slight recovery on the previous 3 months but was still well below pre-Covid levels with c. 200,000 less vacancies than the same period in 2020.
My thoughts are that between November and January, students who were approaching the end of their academic careers and thinking about what to do next, and recent graduates who were doing their best to push their way into/back into the metaphorical drought which is the current job market decided to say, “Screw it”. Why not delay their battle with the current labour market, one where they find themselves at a severe disadvantage? Why not progress further in their educational careers and come back to that fight when they are not only substantially better prepared but also find an environment which is favourable to them?
We now get to the point where I make my predictions:
The next intake in September is going to be larger this year than it was last, and growth will be primarily led by those most heavily impacted by the labour market: specifically for final year UG students, recent graduates, and the more mature audiences who have been heavily impacted when it comes to employment.
We are going to see a lot of student disenfranchisement meaning that retaining UG cohorts into PG is going to be much harder this year. A lot of these PG intenders’ last experience with their university will have been during a lockdown. It will have been fraught with issues like lack of resource, less teacher contact, etc. However, given the poor job market they face, there could well still be strong demand for PG education, just at a different institution. As such, there is the heightened possibility of moving to competitors who offer similar PG provision.
Student migration may become more apparent. Students across the country may not opt to remain with you and it may not be because they have gone to study at a competitor. Maybe they have just decided to go home while they undergo PG study. It is less expensive for them and they can prioritise their futures whilst close to a support network.
All the above are the areas I would prioritise because the present, in my opinion,
offers the most risk/reward. That is not to say you should not be targeting 25-34-year-olds. They remain the single largest group of PG intenders and are more difficult to convert given the wide array of options they have. Despite that, they may very well help bolster your recruitment numbers if you are hit hard by the above.