Posted on 20 Jul '22

If Not, Why Not? – Progressing Current Students to Postgraduate Study


  • Current students are much more likely to switch university for a Masters than for a PhD
  • Unique facilities and research opportunities are most likely to encourage a switch for STEM students; AHSS students care more about rankings and affordibility factors
  • Poor study experiences aren't a major factor for students who switch universities

There's one audience you have as a postgraduate marketer that your undergraduate colleagues are probably quite jealous of – especially as they helped build it.

I'm talking, of course, about your current students: right there, on your campus, in your contacts database, ready to be impressed by all the wonderful things they can stay on and do with you at Masters and PhD level.

But recruiting these students isn't as simple as it seems. There are all sorts of reasons why some choose to look elsewhere (often in spite of incentives to stay). In this Pulse deep-dive, I'm going to take a look at some of them and consider a few possible solutions.

A note on the data

Our Postgraduate Pulse tracker collects around 4,000 responses a month via our FindAMasters and FindAPhD platforms. We use this to update regular insights and to explore specific questions about postgraduate recruitment and marketing.

We asked current UK students interested in postgraduate study whether they were considering a Masters/PhD at their existing university and what their motivations were for staying or switching.

What proportion of current students intend to stay on for PG study?

Let's start with a simple question: what % of current students even consider PG study at their existing university?

The results for PGT and PGR are almost a perfect mirror image of each other, with the majority of prospective Masters students looking beyond their current uni and vice versa for prospective PhD.

One plausible explanation for this is that people typically seek to specialise and diversify at PGT and to engage more closely with current tutors and supervisors at PGR.

There is, by the way, some potential selection bias at work here. By definition, our FindAMasters and FindAPhD audiences are browsing multiple universities and this makes them more likely to be considering alternatives. The contrast between PGT and PGR is probably accurate, but the exact percentages may be a bit overstated.

In any case, we care most about what's behind these decisions.

Do switchers even consider their current university?

So, do the people who aren't planning on staying at their current university even consider doing so?

It appears that when prospective PGR want to go, they go. Of the third who intend to switch uni, only a third of them consider staying. On the plus side, that's a lot of room for improvement with the right message.

For PGT, it's almost a 50/50 split. So, of the two-thirds majority that look elsewhere, around half haven't considered their uni whilst the other half aren't finding what they need to make them stay. Both audiences are probably worth talking to.

Why do people stay?

Before looking at the reasons some people switch university for postgrad, it's useful to take a moment to understand what makes others stay.

From here on I'm going to segment responses by broad subject area as we see some interesting variation between AHSS (Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences) and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) students.

Familiarity is by far the leading factor in convincing people to stay on for a PhD. Beyond that, the differences largely make sense. Affordability is a bigger factor for AHSS students, where funding is typically harder to come by. For STEM students, the availability of specific research options and facilities is understandably more important.

PGT students are even more likely to be persuaded to stay by their familiarity with the university. There isn't much of a difference between subject areas, though affordability remains a bigger factor in AHSS.

...And why do they go?

So, what makes your current students look elsewhere for a Masters or PhD? Is it cheaper fees? Is it rankings? Is it well-meaning advice from your own academics? Well...

The biggest motivator for people to choose a different university for postgraduate study is, it seems, the simple desire for a change. This is particularly true for prospective Masters students and it poses a bit of a paradox: if the students who stay with you do so because they want familiarity and the students who leave do so because they want something new, how do you construct a marketing campaign that appeals to both? I'll come back to that.

Looking more closely, STEM are again more concerned with project/programme suitability, particularly at PGR where moving for particular research opportunities may be a necessity.

AHSS students, who have more flexibility in what they study where, are more likely to 'trade up' for a higher ranked university.

The lower scoring factors are also interesting:

Affordability isn't a definitive factor for many students and is particularly low at PGT. This could reflect poor understanding of PG costs amongst undergraduates (we've previously found that 25% of domestic students aren't aware fees vary for a Masters).

It's encouraging that few people are switching university due to a poor student experience (especially for research carried out during the pandemic) though worth noting that this is a bigger concern in AHSS.

Finally, it seems like most students' current tutors aren't telling them to switch university for postgrad study. Or, if they are, it isn't having a definitive effect.

So, what have we learned?

This data reinforces the fact that persuading your current students to stay on for a Masters or PhD is nowhere near as easy as it might seem.

What can you do then? I'd suggest the following:

#1 Think about what makes familiarity and change appealing

Familiarity is less important than what it enables: knowing who's who in a department and how it works, knowing where most local students live, knowing what's expected in assessments... knowing where the campus coffee shop is.

Change, on the other hand, doesn't have to be geographical. PG isn't the same as UG (and PGR isn't the same as PGT). What does it mean to become a postgrad at your uni? What exciting changes happen within a familiar framework?

#2 Don't be afraid of your academics

The story of a marketer working hard to present all the great features of a uni's PG offering to current students whilst the same uni's tutors tell them to 'progress' elsewhere for a Masters or PhD is a familiar anecdote. And, anecdotally, it does happen. But academics are also very keen to take students on as postgrads (I speak from my own anecdotal experience here).

Either way, our Pulse data suggests that this isn't a net negative factor, so do get them onboard as familiar faces who can also articulate the change and progression involved in PG study.

#3 Tailor messaging to different audiences

If you're talking to current STEM students, be sure they know about the unique facilities and research projects at your university.

If you're talking to current AHSS students you may want to focus on more abstract measures of quality. Yes, rankings, but also the important work your academics are doing: invited lectures, government advisory committees, etc.

Both of these audiences already know who your academics and research communities are. But do they really know what they do outside the lecture theatre?

#4 Affordability is about more than alumni discounts

Pulse tells us that affordability isn't what makes prospective postgrads stay or go. But experience (and a bit of common sense) tells us that fees and funding are a hugely important factor.

My hunch isn't that students just don't care where they can study most 'economically'; rather, they don't actually know how to make financial sense of different PG options. Affordability doesn't differentiate unis for them because they struggle to differentiate in this way.

An alumni discount doesn't solve this problem. It might take a £9,000 Masters fee to closer to £8,000, but that still leaves someone with c.£3,000 of Masters loan to live on for a year (which is its own problem).

I'd like to see a university be really bold here. Give students the typical costs to study (and live!) as a postgraduate for a year. Factor in the alumni discount if you have one, but be honest about the full cost and how your current students meet it. You can't fix the financial issues with PG study, but you can be the place where it's easiest to make financial sense of it. Do that effectively and you've doubled down on the familiarity factor in a really important way.

#5 Recognise that there are some things you can't change

If a prospective PGR is going to leave you for a unique research opportunity at another university, there's very little you can – or should – do about that.

What do you think?

I'd love to hear some thoughts on these findings and perhaps learn what has and hasn't worked for you in terms of PG progression. Come say hi in our postgraduate marketing and recruitment forum, or drop me an email.

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