How is the Cost of Living Crisis Impacting Postgraduate Study?
- 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
- This could be behind an increase in interest in PG study in our September Pulse data
Yes, the current UK economic situation (to pick just one current UK situation) is having an impact on peoples' willingness to commit to potentially extensive and expensive programmes of further study.
I touched on this last month 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.
We've also seen this in our Postgraduate Pulse updates, which is where I'd like to start this piece.
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).
But it's the data for September that really surprised me. I'll try and stay in my postgraduate-marketing-insight lane for this post, but I'm really not sure last month's were likely to suddenly boost confidence in UK PG study.
I'm going to come back to that, but first, let's confirm that cost definitely is an issue.
...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've charted all five responses on our Likert (rather than just the negative spectrum) for these as it's the 'Unsure' line that tells a clear story here.
We don't actually see more UK audiences feeling outright negative about the cost of a Masters or PhD. Instead, they increasingly just don't know.
There are two reasons for that:
The first is that our audience self-selects for a certain level of confidence in and enthusiasm for postgraduate study. Or, to put it another way, the people who are outright convinced they can't afford to do a Masters or PhD probably aren't searching on FindAMasters or FindAPhD right now.
The second is simply that those people who are searching (and there are a lot of them) honestly do not know if they can afford postgraduate study. Because they probably don't know what it costs in 'normal times', they probably don't understand exactly what impact the cost-of-living crisis is having and a lot of the funding makes little-to-no sense anyway.
There may be ways to help with that and it's important to do so, particularly if September is seeing an increase in postgraduate study interest.
"Postgraduate study does well in a recession"
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?
The UK isn't in recession (yet) and employment is currently strong. It's also not obvious that current circumstances will drive people towards further study, with pressures on affordability that didn't exist in 2008 and 2020.
And yet... we're seeing that uptick in Masters confidence.
We're also seeing this:
The above chart measures the proportion of prospective Masters students who say they're very likely to apply within the next 12 months. This tells us how 'warm' the pipeline is (what proportion of people are ready to take action on PG study, as opposed to just researching options).
What's interesting is that the PGT pipeline has been 'heating up' for 'returners' (not currently at university) who've steadily become more likely to apply for a Masters since June.
Is this just seasonality, as we head into the start of the academic year? Or is it another instance of people (re)turning to postgraduate study in times of economic uncertainty?
There's one more chart that makes me think it could be the latter:
Same audiences here, but this time plotting the proportion who began considering a Masters quite recently (within the last 3-6 months).
The line for continuers (current students) does more or less what you'd expect: warming up towards September, then dropping off as the academic year starts.
The line for returners shows a steady uptick in people starting to consider a Masters in the past six months – a trend that continues in September.
So, what does all this mean?
It'll be interesting to see where the various trends go in the October data (and being able to do that is the point of Pulse). But there are two things I'd note right now:
#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 (or who'll be in charge of fixing that problem).
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.
Can you provide guidance on what a Masters or PhD student needs to budget in your city? I've just taken a look at a few university websites and I couldn't find much. Can you put your fee into the context of the loan and / or other funding you have available? Can you just provide clarity on whether your fee is rising – or is likely to?
There's so little clarity and support out there that anything a university does in good faith could be a real help for prospective postgraduates.
#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 getting warmer and shorter during the cost-of-living crisis. As strange as that sounds, 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.
What do you think?
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Five highlights from the vast amount of data in our 2022 State of Postgraduate Taught Search report.
We've looked at which domestic and international audiences are most interested in January start dates for PGT.