UK Higher Education

Domestic Student Trends: how the UK postgraduate demographic is changing under COVID-19

A lot has been studied, analysed and communicated regarding the state of undergraduate student recruitment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Student surveys, online site traffic and the perspective of experts, have all been torn apart in an attempt to get inside the head of the UK’s A-level and equivalent students and to determine how their behaviour could change, and how any changes could be mitigated, in the context of these unprecedented times.

In comparison, the Postgraduate demographic has arguably been rather overlooked by the majority of education sector commentators, despite growing evidence that this group of students will be integral to UK institution’s health over the years to come.

Even before considering the impact of the coronavirus, a growing appetite for postgraduate studies is emerging with significant implications for the higher education sector. A recent study by Hepi predicted that demand for postgraduate education could grow significantly over the long term, with England alone potentially contributing an additional 22,750 undergraduates moving directly to postgraduate study by 2030. This is a considerable increase which could prove vital in filling any gaps that emerge in undergraduate courses or international intake as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

In the context of these wider trends, it is important to understand whether and how postgraduate student behaviour is adapting in the context of the coronavirus. In future articles we will drill down into topics such as which courses, delivery formats, and even institutions may prove most appealing to this essential demographic. However, in this article, we will focus on the nature of that demographic, how the postgraduate population may grow, shrink, shift and change during the coronavirus and the years that follow. Understanding exactly how institutions need to react to a potentially evolving or new audience will prove essential for postgraduate student recruitment over the coming months and years.

Focusing in on the IDP Connect website Postgraduate Search, if we compare traffic year on year we can see an increase of 30.7% in 2020. This growth is particularly impressive in the context of a sharp drop in traffic over March and April when the country first went into lockdown. Although the site saw a sharp drop in visits to the site from March 12th  and continued to decline until reaching its lowest point on March 22nd, it then showed a rapid and consistent recovery. Indeed, the postgraduate audience seemed more resilient to the uncertainty of the last few months than the undergraduate audience, steadily climbing despite the ongoing announcements of the government and institutions until reaching higher levels than in 2019. Traffic in the past 2 weeks has returned to levels which exceed that of the same period last year as has the number of sessions per user and the pages per session while the bounce rate has also improved compared to 2019. These stats indicate that prospective students using the site have higher intent and are spending more time committed to their research. In short, Postgraduate interest in studying seems to be growing not declining.

While this may seem counterintuitive, it fits with historical patterns in postgraduate interest. During the great recession which followed the 2007/2008 financial crash, there was a notable increase in the number of Masters courses being taken up as individuals found themselves out of employment or unable to successfully enter the job market and looked for a way to upskill.

It may be that as the likelihood of a recession, higher unemployment and a more competitive jobs market increases as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, outgoing undergraduate students and even the increasing numbers of newly unemployed are seriously considering upskilling and improving their employability through further academic qualifications until the jobs market in the UK stabilises.

Indeed, this certainly seems to ring true in relation to students due to graduate this year. When analysing the traffic from March 1st to May 11th in 2019 Vs 2020. While overall traffic dipped in this period as the UK first went into lockdown, there were over 11,000 more users aged between 18 and 24 compared to the same period last year. Given that most undergraduate students complete their degrees between the ages of 21 and 24 (depending on the length of the course and whether a gap year was taken), and students younger than this would have no reason to search undergraduate courses, we can assume that this reflects a trend in upcoming graduates to continue with their studies rather than face the volatility and highly competitive job market during and immediately after the coronavirus.

Given that, in the last crash, employment among those with postgraduate qualifications fell less significantly and more slowly, and recovered faster, than it did for those with only an undergraduate degree, pursuing postgraduate studies could indeed be in the best interest of a greater number of individuals. If well communicated, and properly incentivised, this message could prove critical in further promoting the postgraduate offering of institutions in the next few months and maximizing recruitment onto postgraduate courses.

So, postgraduate courses are likely to become more popular during and in the years that follow the COVID-19 pandemic, and to skew towards the younger demographics who would struggle most to get quality graduate employment. There is also considerable evidence to suggest that, not only are postgraduate students more likely to be female now, but this gender split is likely to grow over the next few years. Traffic on Postgraduate Search over 2019 showed a clear majority, 57.77%, of visits from female users, almost exactly reflecting the findings of the recent Hepi study which showed a male to female ratio among new postgraduates of 60:40. With women who complete postgraduate qualifications benefitting from a significant boost to their earnings, with salaries on average 28% higher than women with only an undergraduate degree, there is considerable incentive for women to pursue postgraduate qualification which is likely only to be heightened in the coming years.

Comparably, the salary benefit for men with postgraduate qualification is calculated at as 12% higher than that of men with an undergraduate qualification alone. Furthermore, according to the Hepi data, white men, in particular those from a disadvantaged background, are considerably less likely to take on postgraduate studies than women from the same background. As the benefits of postgraduate qualifications are likely to become even more pronounced in the next couple of years, the benefit for women is equally likely to become even more significant which should be incorporated into the postgraduate course planning, provisions and marketing of institutions as they look to boost their 2020 intake and beyond.

In Summary

Here we have shown that the future for postgraduate student recruitment looks positive. In particular, we have seen that postgraduate education is likely to see increased popularity among the younger demographics, particularly those coming to the end of their undergraduate courses, and for women. How institutions can best capitalise on this interest remains up for debate. We live in unprecedented times and institutions should be cautious over over-zealous or insensitive marketing, in particular showing sensitivity over the financial concerns which will face many undergraduates as they come to the end of their course, and the increasing numbers of the unemployed. While this increased interest and the future benefits of postgraduate study should be publicised, pressure selling and overt promotion of courses could backfire and lead to a negative perception of either individual institutions or the sector as a whole.

While the signs are indeed promising for postgraduate courses, they should be considered on the context of the coronavirus pandemic and the many difficulties being faced by prospective students. A highly personalised and tailored recruitment process will need to be developed that ensures each student feels safe and secure in the education commitments they make.

As institutions grapple with the many challenges of postgraduate student recruitment in the context of coronavirus, IDP Connect will continue delivering insights and analysis to support institutions as they establish their plans for the future. Further articles focusing on the subjects and delivery mode of courses, in addition to other postgraduate student priorities, will follow in the coming weeks. Additionally, an exclusive webinar on Tuesday May 26th will provide a more in-depth analysis of the demographic changes covered here, before diving into the results of an exclusive postgraduate student survey to reveal the priorities, needs and preferences of UK postgraduate students during the coronavirus.

Anyone interested in attending the postgraduate trends webinar can register for free here: https://register.gotowebinar.com/register/8237356804177212428

For further information or support regarding student recruitment, for postgraduate courses or in general, please reach out to us at: ukclientpartnerships@idp-connect.co.uk

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