Who Wants to Start a Masters in January?
- January 2023 is now the most popular UK entry point for prospective Masters students
- Interest is highest for international audiences, but varies substantially by region
- Domestic UK interest is highest for working-age audiences
There's been a fair bit of attention paid to January-start Masters recently. This is a natural part of the PGT recruitment cycle as we reach the end of August and start looking beyond September... but there seems a little more to it this year.
You may have seen coverage suggesting that the January entry point is here to stay in the UK post-Covid. Perhaps yours is one of the (actually relatively few) institutions where this is already true. Or perhaps you're wondering whether it's worth joining them.
Elsewhere a (very) hypothetical plan to shift the entire academic year to January is one of several not-so-small (or perfectly formed) higher education policies to have tumbled out of the Conservative leadership race.
I doubt Liz Truss has flexibility for postgraduate students in mind, personally, but you may well do if your university is considering offering alternative entry points now, or in future.
The question is: do prospective Masters students want this? And, if so, who? Thankfully, our Pulse data can help.
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 ask prospective Masters students when they want to study and measure shifts in interests for different audiences over time.
How many people are considering a January start?
The chart below is a slightly edited version of the one I update each month for our Pulse report (available, free, in your inboxes).
I've 'zoomed in' to data from last November until now, during which January and September 2023 have been offered as survey options. I've also kept the line for January 2022 (this was included as an 'asap' option until June).
Our July data sees a big swing to January 2023 interest with over 40% of prospective Masters students considering this option vs a declining 28% for September 2022.
Interest in September 2023 (the next conventional entry point) has also dropped slightly. This could actually suggest that the momentum for January represents a surge in interest on top of an ongoing trend. Note that we didn't see this happen ahead of September 2022.
Incidentally, we've also started tracking 'long-range' interest in January 2024, with 7% of people already selecting this option.
This is all overall data though – for our full survey audience – so what happens if we drill down?
Is January more popular with international or domestic students?
The next chart segments responses from domestic and international students considering a UK Masters. I've used the UK as a destination here as the data is strong and the question of January starts is a particularly interesting one. The results may be similar for other audiences with a traditional September-August calendar.
You'll either forgive or thank me for introducing the first racing chart to a Pulse article, but it had to happen eventually. The lines here are coloured and labelled by audience.
The first thing we see is that interest in January 2023 is much more popular with international students. This option overtakes September 2022 in June and is selected by almost half of respondents in July.
There are lots of plausible explanations for this: international students may be more used to January starts, more willing to adapt as part of study abroad, or both.
Another hypothesis is that visa issues may be causing some to consider deferring – this would help explain the surge in chart one, but it's not possible to prove within this data set.
Note that UK audiences are also interested in January 2023 – and increasingly so, with nearly a third selecting this option in July, up 10 percentage points from June.
Which international audiences are most interested in January?
Having established that January 2023 interest is rising especially fast with internationals, let's segment a little further and look at some big overseas audiences.
Here I've taken a snapshot of the May-July survey period when interest in January 2023 is highest and broken down the interest in different entry points for a range of countries. The chart is ordered by interest in January 2023 and there's an 'All' responses column at the left for reference. The 'Other' segment gathers up responses for January 2022 and 2024.
Note that this time the data isn't filtered to UK study as we're no longer directly comparing domestic with international interest and broader segments give me usable samples for more countries.
I'm sure you'll make your own observations here, but I'd note that interest doesn't obviously correlate with geography – i.e. January 2023 isn't more popular with Asian and African audiences overall, but with particular countries within these regions. That said, there is similarity between the UK and EU in terms of January 2023 and September 2022 interest.
Bonus: how has international interest in January 2023 grown?
This chart is more of an appendix. It plots the above data as a time series but that means using smaller sample sizes for a few months (generally around Christmas, when Pulse responses are lower) which limits the range of countries I can include.
The first thing I'd note is that Nigerian interest in January 2023 starts builds early, accounting for roughly a quarter of responses from March, whereas other audiences don't hit this point until May.
The rise in interest is much more recent for the UK and India (where May data may be an anomaly) and much less pronounced for the USA. The EU, on the other hand, never builds substantial interest in January 2023, declining from a peak of 20% in May.
Which UK audiences are most interested in January?
Finally, let's explore the domestic audience and see if interest in January starts is higher for particular groups of prospective UK postgraduates.
The obvious thing to do here is look at age groups:
This chart uses a May-July sample again (where 'Other' includes January 2022 and 2024 responses). I've ordered by age group, which reveals a curve.
Interest in January is highest for 25-44 year-olds. This probably reflects something we've seen since the pandemic, with higher interest in Masters study amongst working-age people who also want to study flexibly.
But different audiences want different types of flexibility. Whereas interest in online Masters increases in proportion to age, interest in January actually trails off.
Broadly speaking, it looks like younger UK audiences want to study traditionally; working-age UK audiences want to study flexibly but start at their convenience; and older UK audiences want to study flexibly on a traditional timetable.
What have we learned?
It's not surprising that appetite for January starts builds towards the end of the year, but the scale and scope of the increase is interesting. Here are some things I'd quickly note.
#1 January interest builds early for internationals (and visas will be a factor)
International interest in January isn't a last-minute phenomena as interest builds throughout the year.
Visas help explain this long pipeline; audiences interested in January 2023 will show up earlier because they need to search and plan earlier.
But there is also a sharp increase from June this year and I wonder if the reported visa issuance bottlenecks explain this as people return to search for later entry points.
#2 International interest is (also) diverse
Big 'growth' audiences for UK Masters like Nigeria and India don't want exactly the same things and start-dates are another example of this. Between May and July, nearly half of Nigerian respondents are looking for a January 2023 Masters; vs only a third of Indians.
#3 EU audiences are either uninterested in January starts or unaware
Less than a fifth of prospective EU postgraduates are considering a January 2023 Masters. The question is: are they uninterested in this option because they aren't aware of it? And is there value in raising awareness for UK courses?
#4 Flexible study and convenient start dates aren't exactly the same thing
There is a core working-age UK audience that's most interested in both online Masters and January starts. We might say these people want to study at their convenience and do so as soon as possible. But the trends diverge from there as older audiences are more interested in traditional September starts.
#5 Interest in January 2023 is high and rising
This was hopefully obvious from the start, but it's worth underlining. As of July, a January 2023 start is the preferred option for nearly half of prospective international and nearly a third of prospective UK postgraduates. If you do offer these courses, it's worth talking about them.
What do you think?
We all know that offering January starts is far from simple, and neither is the switch over from marketing September intakes. It would be interesting to hear how universities are approaching this and share perspectives over in our postgraduate marketing and recruitment forum – you can also email me directly about any of our data.
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