Posted on 23 Sep '21

Is the 'Panic Masters' Real? – Postgraduate Pulse Update for September 2021

This month's Pulse sits in a slightly odd place as it lands just before the next instalment of our annual Future Masters and Future PhD surveys. These draw on information from Pulse, but they also dig a lot deeper into a wider data set to create a more detailed picture of the postgraduate recruitment landscape. The results are definitely interesting and I'll be talking about some of the headline findings at next month's webinar (watch this space for details).

In the meantime though, I'd prefer you not to have too much postgraduate insight fatigue. So I've done two things: I've made this update a bit shorter than usual and I've made the charts better.

Here then are four things I've spotted in the most recent Pulse data, including a quick tilt at a phrase that's been bugging me.

#1 Interest in PG study is holding up fine

Last time we did a general Pulse update was July (August's explored the vexed question of course quality) so let's start this one by revisiting our top-level metric, overall confidence in PGT and PGR study:

Here you can see the percentage of people who feel 'very confident' about postgraduate taught and postgraduate research study, plotted against each other. Note that we only have PGR data from April as Pulse launched a little later on FindAPhD.

It's a similar trend for both levels of study, picking up at the end of lockdown and continuing to rise into the summer. We do see a dip for PGT in May, which probably reflects the impact of international travel bans linked to the Delta Variant (Indian students are highly represented at this level). There's also a trend down in August, which may be due to shifting application intentions (more on that below) and uncertainty as to future study circumstances.

#2 But attitudes still vary by market

Here's more or less the same chart, but with each level of study broken down into a selection of key markets (or audiences, if you prefer – I probably do).

This is a very busy chart by default, but you can choose which data series to knock out or keep. Try just comparing regions across the same level of study, or levels of study for the same region.

A few quick things I've spotted:

  • South Asia remains a very robust audience for postgraduate study at both levels, but confidence has trended down since the aforementioned travel bans were introduced and there's a particular dip for PGT in August (probably driving a lot of the overall trend, above)
  • Prospective students from the EU are more confident about PGR than PGT study. Brexit may be a factor in this (the UK being the most popular destination for this audience) having made Masters study more expensive whilst increasing access to full UKRI studentships for EU candidates.
  • For UK students themselves, PGT confidence is relatively low, but stable. PGR confidence rose in July but has dropped back in August. One factor for this may have been the opening of doctoral loan applications in mid summer, though we aren't seeing a similar effect at PGT level.

You can play with the data yourself and see what else interests you. For me, these trends serve to underline the differences between prospective PGT and PGR students whose attitudes, circumstances and intentions can be very different (as we see for EU students here). As tempting as it can be to lump everything into 'postgraduate', savvy student marketers really shouldn't – and we certainly don't (it's FindAMasters and FindAPhD not FindAMastersOrAPhD).

#3 Masters interest is turning towards January

You'd expect interest in autumn semester programmes to die down a little as we approach September, but what's interesting is how much of the swing is towards January 22.

We first saw interest in January 2022 overtake September 2022 back in June and the trend has continued since then.

The obvious question is how much this has to do with the pandemic. We don't have year-on-year data to compare, unfortunately, but I'm not actually sure how much the answer matters right now. The fact is, there's buoyant interest in spring-semester Masters and a real opportunity for universities to engage with this audience. We're already working on some ways to help you do that – feel free to get in touch with one of the friendly folks in our account management team for a bit of a 'head start'.

#4 The 'Panic Masters' is... a catchy newspaper headline, I guess

You may have come across the term 'Panic Masters' in the media recently. This feels, to me, like a strange and slightly crass way of describing graduates' earnest decisions to take on a challenging degree in challenging circumstances, with far from adequate funding.

But is it actually happening?

Well, here you can see the length of time current UK undergraduates have spent looking for a Masters as of this summer (June-August) compared with a 'baseline' for our full survey audience:

Yes, UK undergraduates are more likely to have chosen to do a Masters quite recently, with 21% having started looking in the last three months, vs a baseline of 17%. But 40% of them have been thinking of doing a Masters for over a year (so, since before the start of their final undergraduate year).

Are those 21% 'panic' applicants? Maybe. But they could also be people like me who, back in the halcyon days of 2006, decided to do an MA shortly after handing in my Easter coursework (and yes, I did actually find it through a certain website).

What this means for marketers and recruiters is that interest in postgraduate study is 'always-on'. And, if any prospective students are panicking, we can support and reassure them with effective advice and (especially) clear funding information.

That's it for this update (I said it would be shorter) but please do sign up so I can share the results of our full surveys with you next month. I promise they're interesting and useful. You can also email me if you want to chat about any of this, or just tell me how much better the new charts are.

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