Posted on 18 Aug '21

What Do Prospective Students Think About "Quality"? – Postgaduate Pulse Update for August

If you work in and around higher education – postgraduate or otherwise – references to "quality" are likely to provoke a weary groan.

For one thing, they have a tendency to interrupt quiet Sunday mornings as a newspaper columnist somewhere decides that, rather than writing about the decline of traditional shoe fastenings, the carbon footprint of hamster ownership or what urban cyclists can learn from Gareth Southgate, they would prefer to spend 800 words and two to three hypothetical anecdotes explaining why university education clearly isn't fit for purpose anymore.

Then there's the fact that official rhetoric around "quality" and "value" isn't always a whole lot more robust.

So let me reassure you that, not only is this article relatively unlikely to reach you on a Sunday (we normally send our newsletter midweek) it's also not really interested in a monolithic definition of quality. In fact, I'm not going to define quality at all.

Instead, I'm simply going to accept that quality is in the eye of the student. But that doesn't mean we can't ask whether they're seeing it in the options before them. Especially right now.

Do people think Masters and PhDs are any good at the moment?

We're in a pandemic. Exactly where we are in said pandemic depends on which scientists / epidemiologists / weird bits of Twitter you believe, but the impact on prospective postgraduate students is pretty clear. A lot of them haven't been able to access their university's campus for much of the last year. Others haven't been able to access their university's country. Whatever they think "quality" means, they may, quite reasonably, be wondering if postgraduate study is going to be any good in the near future. So we've asked them.

In what follows, I'm going to chart the percentage of people in our Postgraduate Pulse tracker who say they're 'very confident' about 'the quality of Masters / PhD study right now'.

Here's what the trend looks like for prospective PGT and PGR students across 2021 so far:

Overall confidence in postgraduate quality during 2021 (% of people who are 'very confident' in the quality of Masters or PhD programmes)

Whereas overall attitudes to postgraduate study have continued to wax and wane in step with the pandemic, perceptions of Masters degree quality have continuously improved since January. It's the same story for PhD, though here our data only goes back as far as April.

Right away, this suggests that marketing and recruitment teams have done an effective (and important) job in communicating approaches to provision and setting expectations for the same.

There is some fluctuation if we compare prospective AHSS and STEM students:

Confidence in programme quality by subject (PGT)

Confidence in programme quality by subject (PGR)

Confidence in PGR quality is still higher than for PGT, but STEM actually starts from a lower base at this level. This seems plausible if we assume that 'quality' for many of these students correlates strongly with access to laboratories and other facilities.

AHSS confidence is almost flat for PGR (where the link to campus access is perhaps weaker), but increases quite steadily for PGT (where it probably isn't for traditional taught Masters students).

One clear takeaway here is the potential for universities to demonstrate exactly how they're increasing access to campus through initiatives such as ambassador content. My hunch is that perceptions of postgraduate quality have steadily improved this year for the simple reason that prospective students have been able to actually see what doing a Masters or PhD looks like at the moment – and be reassured by that.

Has the pandemic put undergraduate students off postgraduate study?

As stark as the initial impact of the pandemic was, Covid-19 has impacted the prospective 2021-22 postgraduate cohort to a greater extent than it did for 2020-21. Anyone continuing straight to a Masters or PhD right now has experienced a full year of disruption, including uncertain and unpredictable shifts in provision (very little of it the fault of universities, but that's by the by).

So it's hardly surprising that perceptions of Masters quality were very low for UK undergraduates back in January:

Confidence in programme quality by student situation (UK PGT)

At the start of the year, attitudes were much more positive amongst prospective 'returners' (people who weren't currently at university and therefore hadn't experienced studying during the pandemic).

So far so much as expected, but it's the recent trend that's most interesting – and encouraging. From June onwards, people who've experienced studying at university during the pandemic actually feel more positive about the quality of postgraduate taught provision than those who haven't.

This is even more remarkable at PhD level:

Confidence in programme quality by student situation (UK PGR)

Here our data only goes back to April, at which point continuing students already feel more positive about course quality than returners. There's also another significant increase for July.

I think this tells us two things:

  1. It's yet more evidence that universities (and their marketing and recruitment teams) have done an amazing job providing and communicating quality of provision during 2021.
  2. Students feel particularly positive about the quality of postgraduate study right now with big jumps at both levels in the July Pulse data.

I'd like to think we've also done our part in providing information and reassurance for our FindAMasters and FindAPhD. It's certainly been a priority for our content and marketing team.

Do international students feel the same?

I've used data for prospective UK students in the examples immediately above as it makes it easier to contextualise the trends we see. As we've already seen with Pulse, the impact of the pandemic on students varies by audience and destination.

It is interesting to compare prospective domestic and international students considering a UK programme though:

Confidence in UK programme quality for domestic vs international students (PGT)

Again, there's a dramatic improvement in UK students' perceptions of postgraduate quality. However, international students have actually had a generally positive view of UK Masters provision throughout 2021. This matches what we've been seeing elsewhere in our Pulse data as international student interest has remained generally robust despite obvious challenges.

What's the impact of all this on applications and intended start dates?

Despite the impact of the pandemic, a significant proportion of prospective students feel very confident about the quality of postgraduate study opportunities right now.

But it's reasonable to ask whether those that don't are more likely to delay or defer entry. And there is a loose correlation here:

Impact of quality confidence on intended start-date (PGT)

The above chart compares the study preferences of people who are 'very confident' or 'quite confident' about programme quality with those who are 'unsure', 'not very confident' or 'not at all confident' (a very small percentage).

There's no difference for September 21, but less confident students are more likely to consider a September start than a January start for 2022. This suggests that some people are still taking a 'wait and see' approach to postgraduate study. Bear in mind that this is a relative minority; as we saw last month, most prospective postgraduates are focussing on the coming September or January.

So, is it good then?

It may not be of much interest to hawkish regulators or erstwhile op-ed writers, but the obvious conclusion to draw from all of this is that prospective students have faith in the quality of Masters and PhD programmes and universities have done a good job of communicating it to them.

The challenge will be to maintain this as momentum builds for September following the recent opening of student finance applications (something I'll be covering in an upcoming post). Visualising the Masters and PhD study experience and telling effective stories through ambassador content will be key, as will knowing exactly what it is your students are looking for.

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Coronavirus and international study choice

Our June Pulse update asked how the pandemic was shaping attitudes to different postgraduate study destinations.

September starts and alumni attitudes

Our July Pulse update examined how students felt about continuing on to a Masters or PhD at their current university.