Posted on 29 Sep '22

Surviving Survivorship Bias – 5 Takeaways from 5 Million Postgraduate Searches

UK postgraduate study is becoming more diverse, but what do different domestic and international audiences actually look for? Our new State of Postgraduate Taught Search report explores the next steps for Masters-level study. Here are some of the things we've spotted – and why they matter.

Anyone who's seen me give a talk on postgraduate study will know I'm quite fond of survivorship bias.

Well, actually, I'm not. I think it's a big problem in postgraduate marketing and recruitment that other people don't talk about often enough, which is why I do – including at our 2022 PG Marketing Conference last week.

The classic example often does duty as one of those dreadful LinkedIn memes: an (almost certainly) apocryphal story about the RAF deciding to reinforce all the damaged areas of returning bomber aircraft without realising that those were, by definition, the non-critical parts (planes with damage elsewhere didn't make it back).

It's nonsense and only makes sense for about four seconds, but it does illustrate the fallacy of optimising what's already working and ignoring what isn't.

Here's why that matters in PG marketing and recruitment.

Yes, women want to study Computer Science

According to HESA, only 30% of PGT Computing students in the UK are female. It's one of the most male-dominated subject areas. This probably won't surprise you.

But, based on what we see in Pulse, I can tell you that 44% of prospective PGT Computing students in the UK are female. That's quite a big difference. The problem is that, evidently, a lot of those interested people aren't making it through to study yet. And, if we fall into survivorship bias — thinking, even if just unconsciously, of prospective Computer Masters applicants as mostly male – then they won't.

There are examples of this all over the place. It happens as soon as we slip back into adorning prospectuses (digital or otherwise) with twenty-somethings on campus... and stop seeing all the working-age audiences who still want to study online. And, as Reena Kaur pointed out in her excellent presentation last week, this kind of thing is a huge problem if we fail to see the lack of BAME progression from UG through to PGT and PGR.

Understanding what prospective postgraduates actually search for

Pulse helps us get around survivorship bias by understanding what prospective postgraduates are feeling, saying and planning.

Our new State of Postgraduate Search report adds to this by telling us what prospective students are searching for – and how. It uses the same data as our Compass insights tool to offer a snapshot of search behaviour based on over 5million FindAMasters users in 2022 so far.

My colleague, Jack Taylor and I, have been working on this inaugural edition over the past few months. One thing we've tried very hard to do – and which I think adds unique value to this data – is be 'agnostic' of our website traffic or listings. If we tell you that more African audiences are searching for UK Software Engineering Masters (they are) we want that to reflect an actual trend, not just an increase in users or programmes on FindAMasters. Jack explains how we've done this in his section on methodology.

For now, I'm going to pick out 5 highlights that can help nudge use away from survivorship bias and think more broadly about prospective PGT students.

#1 International audiences are searching more broadly

The pivot from China towards India and Nigeria in UK PGT recruitment won't be news to you and nor are the reasons for it (including differences in pandemic policy and, of course, the introduction of the Graduate Route visa).

But it's striking just how different these audiences are from China. For one thing they're much more agnostic of 'quality proxies'. Whereas Chinese audiences are heavily biased towards higher-ranked Russell Group universities, Indian and Nigerian searches are a lot more evenly distributed.

What this means is that, whereas current international PGT distribution is concentrated around Russell Group members, recruitment has the potential to become much more 'egalitarian'.

#2 Diverse audiences also mean diverse search behaviour

Following on from the above, Indian and Nigerian audiences aren't just different from China: they're different from each other.

Trending subjects for South Asian searches, for example, tend to include more traditional STEM fields with a bias towards medicine, such as Biotechnology, Pharmacy and Radiology. African audiences, on the other hand, are driving search growth in technical subjects such as Software Engineering and Information Systems as well as various Business specialisms.

This less 'monolithic' era of international recruitment will benefit from closer monitoring and exploration. Myself, Jack and the FAU insights team are here to help – genuinely.

#3 There are Chinese students who want to study Humanities subjects

Our data for Chinese audiences on a western website is limited (and we're honest about that) but what we're seeing suggests a different search profile, possibly reflecting demographic shifts in the kinds of audiences that are visible to us. For example, we see growing Chinese interest in subjects such as Curatorial Studies – and in Marketing, actually.

These may not be a majority, but the interest is definitely there once we get past survivorship bias towards 'traditional' Chinese subjects. This is just one example of where we find things in search that we're not necessarily looking for, or expecting.

#4 The cost-of-living crisis is almost certainly dampening UK PGT interest

We still have a very big domestic audience on FindAMasters (and FindAPhD too) but they've been shrinking as a percentage of our total users during 2022.

Some of this will be due to international growth, driven by the Graduate Route visa. But the timing (with a big drop during the last two quarters) lines up with mounting economic concern in the UK.

The Masters degrees that made a lot of sense (and drove a lot of sector growth) during the 2020 and 2021 lockdowns are a harder sell now. Part of the problem with this is the difficult (some might say broken) economics of domestic postgraduate funding.

There isn't a simple solution, but we're working to help understand the problem.

#5 A 'league table' based on search share looks quite different to a normal ranking

Which is why we made one.

No, the 2022 Share of PGT Search Ranking doesn't have a very rigorous methodology, no you absolutely shouldn't use it in your marketing and yes, we do need a snappier name... but it's interesting to look at. Squint and it looks like another ranking. Look closely and it doesn't.

I'll leave you to check for yourself in the report.

Feedback welcome

I hope you find the report useful and that it serves as an example of the sort of things we're looking to do with our data. As I say, we're very keen to get feedback. There are things we wanted this report to do that weren't possible in time and things we've done that we want to do better; it would be great to hear what's going to be most useful to the postgraduate marketing and recruitment community.

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