Posted on 11 Jun '24

What’s Happening with PGT Home?

Recent dialogue around UK PGT has mostly centered around the international audience in the wake of recent visa changes, both imposed and proposed. However, PGT home numbers are also an area of concern.

At our recent Postgraduate Marketing Conference in Sheffield, many attendees were particularly interested in what recent marketing strategies had been successful with PGT home students. Then a few weeks ago, during Wonkhe’s dive into all things PGT, David Kernohan published an article exploring what might be happening with PGT home students.

HESA data typically offers a useful window into this as we’ve explored previously, but numbers beyond the 21/22 academic year won’t be released until August. Wonkhe’s research therefore uses the more recent (but less complete) HESES dataset (focusing on those students eligible for OfS funding). This finds a drop in PGT home students from over 200,000 in 2020 to just over 160,000 in 2023.

The question is, what’s behind this drop? I’ve turned to our Pulse and Share of Search data to see what the attitudes and behavior of prospective students over the past few cycles can tell us.

Student sentiment

Our long running Pulse data measures a multitude of variables, including the confidence of prospective students with regards to undertaking PGT study.

This isn’t a perfect measurement. Our survey audience is made up of people proactively seeking postgraduate study and willing to answer questions about it – as my colleague, Mark, is fond of saying, “this is not the person in the street”.

But the overall trend in confidence levels can be illuminating. Here’s what it looks like:

The chart above shows a significant rise in uncertainty since the start of 2024, which may be related to recent negative HE press. However, with the exception of Q1 2024, the general trend had been a fall in uncertainty and a sharp rise in the percentage of those feeling 'quite confident' about pursuing PGT study, from around 28% in Q1 2022 to nearly 60% in Q3 and Q4 2023.

Interestingly, however, this occurs alongside a significant fall in the percentage of those who claim to be 'very confident' about pursuing PGT study.

Which suggests that there is a growing proportion of prospective students that are not 100% committed to pursuing it. The size of this prospective PG audience isn’t changing dramatically, but they might need more persuasion and support than before.

The key issues

So, what might lie beneath this drop in those feeling 'very confident'?

Pulse also tracks the largest concerns that students have about entering PGT study. The survey allows students to select up to three concerns that they feel most accurately reflect their mindset when considering PGT courses.

The most notable rises over the past two years have concerned (no pun intended) Cost and Time. These are most likely linked. As PGT study becomes relatively more expensive and funding remains inexplicably stringent, prospective students become more likely to have to turn to part time work to supplement their finances. Which clearly has a knock-on effect on their time.

This would appear to be backed up by another subset of our Pulse data which tracks how positive audiences feel about other aspects of study: the cost of postgraduate education, employability prospects post-study, and the quality of Masters courses.

Unequivocally, the cost of UK PGT generates the largest amount of concern for the domestic audience. In fact, since Q1 2022, less than 25% of that audience claim to feel even 'quite confident' about cost. It appears to be the major stumbling block for those considering pursuing a PGT course.

On the other hand, sentiment from the domestic audience regarding the quality of UK PGT and the positive impact it can have on employability are both rather optimistic. More than half of prospective students claim to be either quite confident or very confident about these topics.

When tracked quarter by quarter, we see fluctuations in the audience's attitude towards cost, though without any general trend. They don’t appear to be any more or less positive now than they were two years ago. Whereas the proportion of those who are confident in quality appears to be steadily growing, from 47% of the audience in Q1 2022 to 57% in Q1 2024.

Cost is a difficult concern to address for domestic students – given that it’s something of a structural problem with the available funding (though there are ways to help support audiences). But it’s good to know that searching audiences feel fundamentally positive about the value and quality of UK Masters.

A shift towards study abroad?

The domestic UK audience are renowned for being homebirds, however, recent figures suggest that might be changing.

Between Q2 2020 and Q3 2022, the percentage of the domestic audience seeking PGT courses at UK institutions hovered between 87% and 89%. Since then, however, it hasn’t again reached 87%, and in fact Q1 2024 saw it fall to a new low point of less than 84%.

Four percentage points isn’t a significant drop, but it is sustained. There’s a clear sense that the domestic searching audience has been slightly more likely to look abroad since Q4 2022 (the start of the 22/23 academic year).

Where does that leave us?

None of these factors alone explain the recent drop in PGT home, but together they paint a clearer picture.

  • Domestic PGT study is becoming relatively more expensive to undertake and while funding remains inflexible and arguably inadequate there are rising concerns about feasibility.

  • The audience is there, but it may need more persuasion and support to pursue PG study than previously.

  • Confidence remains strong regarding the quality of UK PGT and the prospects of employability upon course completion.

  • The domestic audience appears to be becoming slightly more likely to seek Postgraduate opportunities abroad.

So, what can we do?

According to the data, the major deterrent is cost. Multiple approaches have been suggested to tackle this through funding, but while we await those potential changes – and in the wake of a snap election that is likely to halt any momentum on that front – understanding the audience and being flexible to their needs is more important than ever.

An increasingly diverse audience

The PGT home audience is becoming older. At the end of 2022, 58% were aged under 35. By Q1 2024, that figure was 41%. That’s a significant shift in demographics, towards a more diverse audience with more diverse needs.

Our most recent data shows an almost even split between the numbers of those seeking to be taught on campus, those seeking a blended delivery method, and those seeking fully online courses. Even within those distinct groups, though, there are varying preferences for when students want to study. Everyone wants flexibility, even those who want to study on campus. Providing – and communicating – that flexibility will be vital.

Furthermore, preferences continue to shift between discipline areas. Our Discipline Deep Dive series highlight these differences and provide an insight into the preferences of each.

The domestic audience for Arts and Humanities, for example, is the oldest of any discipline area. They are 5% more likely to seek flexible delivery methods and 11% more likely to look for part-time courses than the average UK PGT seeker. Ensuring that these opportunities exist is a good start to combatting the apparent slump.

Flexible course provision is not the only way of meeting needs, however. Providing useful, easily accessible resources to alleviate the key concerns (funding options, case studies of how students successfully manage finances etc.) and engaging with students directly will help to empower the audience to make informed decisions about pursuing UK PGT.

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