Posted on 21 Dec '22

How is the Cost of Living Crisis Impacting Postgraduate Study?

Updated Highlights

  • Interest in PG study has been rising despite the cost of living crisis, but there’s been a sharp fall in November
  • Prospective postgraduates are increasingly uncertain, but not absolutely negative, about the cost of Masters and PhD study
  • Economic uncertainty may be prompting more working-age 'returner' students to consider a Masters

I first wrote this post in October, when we were seeing a sharp (and perhaps unexpected) increase in confidence around PG study, despite the cost-of-living crisis.

We’ve noticed two things in our Pulse data since then.

Firstly, it looks like a temporary issue with our survey may have overstated how high that confidence in further study was, although the upward trend during the autumn is still accurate.

Secondly, we’ve seen a significant drop in confidence for November.

Taken together, it looks like interest in PG study has been relatively robust until recently, but that the current UK economic situation is now having a significant impact on peoples' willingness to commit to potentially extensive and expensive programmes of further study.

I touched on this in September when picking highlights from our 2022 State of Postgraduate Taught Search report, where we've seen a contraction in domestic audiences searching for a UK Masters.

However, it looks like my original hypothesis that older audiences were becoming more interested in PG study holds true. I’ve updated some of the charts and discussion below to reflect on that.

Confidence in Masters study was dropping, until recently

Here's a slightly edited version of the first chart in each month's Pulse update. It measures how confident UK audiences are feeling about Masters and PhD study:

There are a few different stories to tell here.

One thing we see is the impact the omicron wave had back in winter 2021; briefly, but significantly, dampening confidence in both levels of PG study.

Things then stabilised until April – when the first increase in the energy price cap underlined the seriousness of the cost of living crisis. Confidence in Masters study drops off sharply at this point with a similar, though less pronounced, trend for PhD. I'm not entirely sure what happens to briefly lift things in July – possibly a data blip, or perhaps something tied to funding (applications for Masters and PhD loans had opened quite recently).

The data for September initially surprised me (and prompted the first version of this post).

It now looks like that increase in confidence was partially inflated. But here’s the thing: as you can see on the updated chart, the trend continued. Those levels of ‘positivity’ about Masters study may have been overstated relative to previous months, but they were increasing relative to each other.

Until November.

...Cost definitely is an issue

As well as asking Pulse audiences how confident they feel about postgraduate study in general, we ask how they feel about more specific things, including the cost of study.

Here's what that looks like for prospective Masters students:

And for PhD:

I previously drew attention to the ‘Unsure’ line on these charts as this was the most obvious trend – suggesting steadily increasing uncertainty.

That’s still broadly true, but as you’ll no doubt have noticed, we’ve also seen a ‘flip’ from positive to negative sentiments in November.

I think two things are happening here:

The first is that the aforementioned data issue was probably inflating positivity in August-October.

The second is that there has been a genuine shift in sentiment for November. I say this because the trend for negative sentiment prior to August was already downwards for both audiences. It’s only now that it’s increasing.

So we’re seeing a situation in which prospective UK Masters and PhD students are becoming much more concerned about the cost of PG study. But a lot of them are still uncertain.

There are things postgraduate marketers and recruiters can do to help with that.

"Postgraduate study does well in a recession"

As I wrote last time, it's been true that recession and / or employment turbulence tends to boost enrolments in Masters-level study in particular as graduates 'shelter' in education and workers seek to pre-empt or insure against career turbulence.

We saw this most obviously in 2008 as the credit crunch squeezed graduate earnings and job prospects. Something similar happened at the start of the pandemic in 2020, though here there was both a carrot and stick: graduates and workers were worried about employment prospects at the same time as online learning (and, for some, furlough) made postgraduate programmes more accessible than ever.

So, what happens now?

It's not obvious that current circumstances will drive people towards further study, with pressures on affordability that didn't exist in 2008 and 2020.

study in particular was being driven by older ‘returner’ students.

It looks like that may still be true, despite the fact that confidence is lower (and now falling).

Taking our November data as a snapshot, we see that ‘returner’ students are quite a bit more positive about Masters study.

Last time we also saw that that this audience is a lot more likely to apply in the next 12 months (suggesting a much ‘warmer’ pipeline of people ready to take action on PG study, rather than just researching options).

I’ve re-run that time series for this update:

Here I’ve plotted our ‘real’ data, which is almost certainly impacted by the positive bias inflation during August-October. I’ve also interpolated some predicted data for those months, generated by our very clever FAU data team; this dotted line shows us what a predictive model thinks would probably have happened, based on trends during the preceding months. It isn’t perfect but it gives us some idea of what the time series might have looked like.

Either way, we’re seeing a colder pipeline in November (reflecting the drop in confidence) but we’re still seeing that returners are a lot ‘warmer’ and a lot more ‘insulated’ (if you’ll forgive me for overextending an all-too-topical metaphor).

So, what does all of this mean?


The virtue of Pulse is that we’re able to monitor these trends over a very long period of time (we’ll have two full years of PGT data next month). That helps us spot oddities like the inflated responses this autumn and, crucially, it also gives us the context to rationalise and correct them.

And so it’s all eyes on the data for December. I’d be surprised if we see a big recovery in domestic PG confidence, but it’s possible that the ‘depth’ of the November dip is partly seasonal and circumstantial.

Either way, there are a few things I’d be thinking about in the meantime:

#1 When it comes to further study, the cost-of-living crisis is a problem of uncertainty as much as negativity

Yes, there will be some people who are absolutely not considering the expense of a Masters or PhD in a country where it isn't clear what household bills will look like next month.

But there are lots of other people whose main challenge is understanding what the cost of living crisis means for their postgraduate plans.

You can't fix the problems, but you can help fix the information and advice.

#2 The cost of living crisis might be encouraging working-age students to consider a Masters

Pulse suggests the pipeline for people returning to PGT study has been more robust during the cost-of-living crisis and that this audience may still be more resilient now; it's not implausible that some people are deciding to invest in education as a way of trading up career and earning prospects.

The challenge is to understand this audience and reach them with the information they need. We already know working-age students are keener on online study and on January starts; we now also know they're likely to be uncertain about the economics of Masters study.

#3 Plenty of UK students do still want to study a Masters or PhD

Pulse definitely shows us that domestic audiences are more uncertain and less confident about further study. But it can only do that because there are thousands of them taking part in Pulse every month.

We’ve also seen UK traffic to FindAMasters and FindAPhD rising during the cost of living crisis.

Audiences are out there – if they weren’t I’d have little to say here – but the challenge, as always, is reaching and understanding them; we’re going to keep on doing our best to support that.

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