Posted on 26 Feb '24

3 Things That Are Already Different About This Cycle

No, this isn't another post about UK student visas. At least, not directly.

Those changes are having a big impact on prospective PG audiences for the UK (and elsewhere) but audience sizes and shifts aren't the only story here.

Our Pulse data now stretches back over three years, letting us compare specific aspects of the student journey and decision-making process across multiple cycles. We can measure things like interest in flexible study, spring entry, obstacles to Masters study, etc – and, crucially, we can also sense-check them.

You may have heard me call this the 'hang on, is that normal?' test. In the post I'm going to do it for all of the above. Because all of those things are indeed a little different in this cycle.

#1 Spring is much stickier than usual

One of the most important things we track in Pulse is the intended start date for our searching audience. This lets us see when momentum is building for different entry points, and when the pipeline is 'switching over'.

It's designed to help you target the right audiences at the right times and you can get the data in our free monthly Pulse updates (or chat to our team if you'd like something a bit more bespoke).

By now, I would expect the majority of our searching audience to be targeting the coming Autumn for study in the UK.

They aren't:

In January this year, 40% of prospective students (domestic and international) were looking to start their UK Masters in Autumn (so September). In 2022 and 2023, that figure was above 60%.

And it looks like that 'missing' 20% are still focussed on Spring.

What does this mean?

This effect is present for all audiences, but particularly pronounced for prospective internationals. A succession of visa changes and a pending Graduate Route review are probably driving audiences to try and begin UK study before the terms get any worse.

The domestic effect is harder to explain. Shifts in the underlying audiences could be a factor here. We know, for example that 'returner' students are less tied to the 'typical' academic year.

Regardless, it's a very 'asap' pipeline right now.

#2 Blended is more popular with everyone

We've been tracking trends for delivery preference since 2021 (it seemed a logical thing to do during the pandemic) with pretty consistent findings. International students mostly want to be on campus (study abroad means study abroad); domestic students are more of an even split (with older returners tending towards flexibility).

But now:

Here I'm comparing study preferences in Q3 last year to the same period in 2022 and doing so across domestic and international PhD students.

The four audiences all vary in logical ways but all of them are showing more interest in blended learning.

What does this mean?

Or rather, what does 'blended learning' really mean? My hunch is that, right now, it means wanting to study mostly on campus – with access to the facilities, rhythms and sense of belonging that entails – but not having to rent expensive city-centre accommodation and/or budget for a daily commute.

If I'm right, then it's particularly important to emphasise what flexibility means for your campus and courses.

The increase in online interest for international PGT is also worth remarking. It's a small segment, but it's grown by 50%. The obvious explanation is that audiences who value qualification over international experience and post-study-work may be more pragmatic in the face of increasing costs and barriers to study abroad.

#3 Cost isn't the only growing concern

Cost is always the biggest obstacle to postgraduate study in Pulse and it's no surprise to see it increasing during a cost-of-living crisis. But it's not the only concern that's growing this year:

The above compares the % of our total prospective UK audience who select each option as their main concern about PGT study (it's possible to select multiple options).

Cost is up 12 points, but we're also seeing a 4 point increase for Eligibility and a 3 point increase for Time.

What does this mean?

I actually think all three of these are linked.

Cost reflects the shall we say 'challenging' economics of PG study for domestic students as well as the literal added costs for international students who now pay more for visas and healthcare.

The increase in concern over Eligiblity probably links to those same visa changes: for many prospective students it is less clear whether they'll be eligible to come and complete a UK Masters (or, at least, what the basis for that eligibility will be).

And the higher costs faced by both audiences also put pressure on Time. The reality is that most Masters students will now need to balance work and study – which probably explains that growing preference for 'blended' learning.

So, what does all of this mean?

We're facing a postgraduate recruitment cycle in which audiences are less certain of their postgraduate study opportunities, but still keen to study. After all, only 7% of our audience are concerned a Masters won't have Value – and that's down on last year.

We have a 'warm' pipeline for Spring, partly because it's less certain what PG study might look like from Autumn (especially for internationals). We also have a very pragmatic pipeline: people are open to flexible options that reduce some economic pressures without placing too many demands on their time.

These aren't easy concerns to deal with, but you can offer some reassurance about what policy changes do and don't mean for prospective postgrads, as well as explaining how your university makes flexible study feasible and, if possible, more affordable.

It's a point I make often, but this is where stories and advice from your current students can really shine. Show that your university is a welcoming place for postgraduate study and show that you have students studying in a way that works for them.

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