Posted on 26 Apr '22

Covid & Postgraduate Study: Where Are We Now? – Postgraduate Pulse Insight


  • Prospective mature students in the UK are still more likely to consider a Masters in 2022 due to the pandemic
  • International study plans are responsive to countries' travel and enrolment policies
  • Concern about Covid disruption is highest for students seeking to study on campus – but it may actually prompt them to seek information and reassurance via on campus events

A few weeks ago, I was standing in a large room, in a large building, talking to a large group of people about funding a postgraduate course. I then went and stood behind a table, in front of a branded banner, and answered questions, face-to-face, with a large queue of people scribbling answers in the back of shiny new prospectuses.

It all felt very 2019. Except...

Many of those people were wearing masks. Some stood further back than usual. And, before setting off that morning, I'd had the now familiar experience of choking my way through a lateral flow test. It was also a bit easier to get a seat on the train. A bit.

It's all a bit uncanny. And it poses a question: where does Covid fit in a marketing and recruitment world that's returning to inter-city travel, printed prospectuses and physical postgraduate recruitment events?

I want to use this month's 'deep-dive' into our Pulse data to find out.

How we survey

Before I start, I'll quickly introduce our survey methodology. Data for Pulse is collected from roughly 4,000 responses per month across our FindAMasters and FindAPhD platforms. All respondents are actively considering postgraduate study.

We ask about Covid in two ways:

  • One question measures Covid concern – how worried someone is that the pandemic will disrupt their Masters or PhD study. This is a five-point Likert and the charts below plot positive responses ('not very concerned and 'not at all concerned').
  • One question measures Covid impact – whether someone is more or less likely to study a Masters or PhD due to the pandemic.

This ensures we're measuring the specific relationship between Covid and study plans, not general sentiment about the pandemic.

Are prospective postgraduates still worried about Covid?

Yes, but less so:

This is data for our full audience (we segment in our monthly tracker updates), measuring Covid concern.

The Pulse data clearly correlates with the recent course of the pandemic. The Omicron wave briefly made people more wary of making study plans, but this has recovered during 2022 (when countries like the UK have been relaxing restrictions).

As positive as the trend is, overall concern is still fairly high – particularly for PGT students, who may feel more vulnerable to disruption during shorter taught programmes. The obvious follow-on question is then: does this make people more or less likely to begin a Masters or PhD?

Is Covid encouraging or discouraging domestic students?

Let's look first at Covid impact for UK domestic PGT students. We know from our Pulse tracker that this audience is very happy to consider online and blended study. We also know from HESA 20/21 data that the pandemic has brought more 'mature' students into PGT study (something I've written about elsewhere).

So what about the 22/23 recruitment cycle then? Well, Pulse shows us that Covid remains likelier to encourage PGT study than discourage it. We also see a correlation with demographics: working-age people are more likely to do a Masters; prospective or recent graduates are more likely to be put off; older people are the most indifferent.

These results bring some fairly plausible personas to mind: a final-year student looking for a change after three years of studying in pandemic conditions; a mid-career worker looking to take advantage of a fluid job market and opportunities for flexible study.

The reality will be more complex, but it clearly does make sense for postgraduate marketing and recruitment to be thinking about that middle segment and the kinds of provision they're looking for – more on that shortly.

What about international students?

We know that Covid certainly hasn't put international students off studying in the UK. Indeed, as I wrote here last week, the UK's response to the pandemic is partly responsible for incredibly successful enrolments vs other anglophone destinations.

We see this in the Pulse data too:

These charts measure Covid impact for groups of international students considering popular destinations. So we see whether someone considering studying in a given country is more or less likely to do so due to Covid.

The trends here aren't surprising – showing the impact Australia's closed border policy has on student intentions, for example – but they remind us of the impact that 'macro' policy can have.

Does Covid concern correlate with online study preferences?

Here's something that is more surprising.

I said earlier that we should look further into study preferences for different audiences, which we can do, by segmenting the Pulse data. One obvious hypothesis is that students expressing the most Covid concern (about future disruption) will be less keen to study on campus.

Here's the chart:

I'll admit this had me stumped for a moment, until I realised it makes perfect sense. Of course those students who are considering a Masters or PhD on campus are the most concerned about disruption: they assume, rightly, that on campus study is most likely to be disrupted.

We also see a very slight correlation between Covid impact and study preference: e.g. 14% of on campus PGT students are reconsidering study vs 10% of online and blended.

This still doesn't necessarily mean Covid is pushing people online though. It's just that prospective on campus students have more to be concerned about and are ever so slightly more likely to cancel or defer. But the people who want to study on campus still want to study on campus.

Let's finish with something else that feels even less intuitive.

Is Covid putting people off on-campus open days?

I began this piece talking about the (uncanny) experience of delivering on campus events in this not-quite-post-pandemic world. As successful as these have been, I think we all know we're not stepping straight back into 2019. There are lots of reasons for this, not least of which the fact that virtual events are now very available and familiar, whereas physical events aren't. Maree wrote about this here last month, comparing what people want from physical and virtual formats.

One hypothesis is that Covid might be deterring people from, say, on-campus open days. Well, guess what...

This one didn't just have me stumped. It had me going back into survey questionnaires, checking Likert scales and re-running Excel formulae. But the data is correct. People who express more Covid concern are also more comfortable attending physical open days.

And, again, I think this correlation is logical – and important.

It feels like we're biased to think of Covid as a zero-sum scenario in which people will or won't do something. This may be because the past two years of Covid have been zero-sum scenarios in which we are or aren't able to do things. In reality, prospective students are worried about Covid because they want to study on campus... and they're willing to head on to campus to get the information and reassurance they need to overcome that worry.

So, where does all this leave us?

The common thread throughout this deep dive into our Covid data is that the pandemic is still a factor in postgraduate recruitment.

We've seen that prospective Masters and PhD students are very responsive to the broader pandemic, including its impact on their international study preferences. But we've also seen that the impact isn't necessarily negative (older students remain more likely to consider a Masters than they were pre-pandemic). And, when it is, students will seek to contact universities for information and reassurance. Events are one channel for offering that. Next month Maree will be looking at some others. In the meantime, you can, as always, check the overall postgraduate recruitment trends we're seeing in our monthly Pulse tracker.

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