Posted on 27 Jan '23

Where Are We With UK Postgraduate Recruitment?

It's a truism to say that postgraduate study is the most varied part of the UK higher education sector, but it's never been more true than now, as the impact of funding changes, Brexit, Covid and a new post-study work visa all make themselves felt.

Keeping track of all these factors is a pretty daunting task for postgraduate marketing and recruitment professionals.

You have our Pulse and (brand new) Share of Search data to help measure what's happening at the 'top of the funnel'; you have your own application and enrolment data and the chance to sense-check this against others via PG forums and professional events; but it can be harder to get a sector-wide view of what's happening to PG recruitment overall.

Until, all of a sudden, that data arrives. Like it did last week.

4 reasons 21/22 was a very signficant HESA release for PG study

The release of HESA data for academic year 2021/22 necessarily lags behind the current recruitment cycle, but it answers an awful lot of questions for PGT and PGR:

  1. Brexit – though the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016 it wasn't until 2021 that the majority of EU students lost access to free movement, domestic fees and UK postgraduate loans.
  2. The Graduate Route – announced in 2019 (with an immediate impact on PGT recruitment) the new UK post-study visa opened for applications and became far more prominant in 2021
  3. UKRI Funding Changes – the UK finally made international students (including EU students) eligible for UKRI doctoral studentships in 2021. You'd expect this to have a big impact on PhD recruitment.
  4. Covid – the pandemic certainly wasn't over at the start of 21/22 (we saw the impact of Omicron almost immediately in our Pulse data) so did it boost domestic recruitment to the same extent, and in the same places, as in 19/20?

The impact of these factors can tell us a lot about the postgraduate recruitment situation we face for 2023/24. Here's what I see.

PGT - domestic falls back, international overtakes it and Brexit finally bites

This is HESA data for first-year domestic, EU and international (non-EU) postgraduate taught students from 2016/17 to 2021/22:

The most striking thing we see on this chart is international PGT enrolments overtaking domestic for the first time. This is the combined impact of the Graduate Route opening just as the pandemic eased pressure on students' ability to study abroad.

Almost as dramatic, though less obvious, is the long expected drop in EU students starting UK Masters degrees. The intervening years since the referendum have masked the impact of Brexit as rolling guarantees protected access to fee, funding and travel arrangements whilst some students hurried to 'beat the door'.

Those guarantees rolled to a halt in 2021 and the door shut for most students (those already in the UK could retain some study rights via the EU Settlement Scheme). The result is a sudden drop of 38%. Chances are this will continue to fall as future cohorts won't benefit from the EUSS.

For domestic recruitment, the numbers drop vs 20/21, but they're still well up on those for 19/20. It's hard to accurately interpret time series data here as we have no way of knowing what would have happened to the underlying (upward) trend in a Covid-free 20/21. Still, it feels like the pandemic had less of an impact in 21/22, either because less people were attracted (or worried) into PGT, or because some of that 20/21 cohort had brought forward further study.

What's happening within that UK PGT data is still really interesting though:

If you've seen me talk about PGT over the past year, you'll have seen an earlier version of this chart. It shows how the pandemic finally boosted Masters enrolments amongst older age groups (something even the postgraduate loan couldn't do).

This is really important and it's a trend that definitely does continue in 21/22.

All three age groups fall relative to 20/21, but the older groups fall a lot less. First-year PGT enrolments for 21-24 year olds drop by 11%, 25-29 drops by 9% and 30+ drops by only 4% (I think we can agree that line is well above where we'd have expected in a pandemic-free timeline). The older someone is, the more likely they are to still be interested in Masters study in 21/22. That still seems to be true, by the way.

PGR – domestic slightly down, international slightly up and EU slightly bleak

Here's what enrolments look like for postgraduate research:

The 42% drop in first-year enrolments from the EU is slightly bigger at PGR level, but this is against a trend that was already falling since the referendum (EU students have been understandably warier about committing to a 3-4 year PhD and the hope of a post-doctoral career that often attaches to it).

The domestic pattern is similar to PGT, with 21/22 enrolments falling back after a pandemic 'bounce'. Here though, the 20/21 uplift was only a partial recovery after a drop in 2019/20. We're back below those levels now.

There is an increase for international enrolments, but it's nothing like the trend for PGT and certainly not what you'd expect for the year that UKRI funding is finally made available to non-EU students.

It's possible that there's a slight lag here. The announcement of the changes was made in August 2020, so perhaps those applying for a 21/22 PhD (with UKRI deadlines in autumn/winter) simply weren't informed in time to take action. I doubt it, personally.

Alternatively, the pandemic could be more of a factor for international PGR, but that feels unlikely given the increase in 21/22 and the very different trend for PGT.

It's more likely that these changes just haven't worked to increase enrolments; they certainly haven't worked yet.

5 takeaways for postgraduate recruitment

What can this data for postgraduate enrolments in 21/22 tell you about postgraduate recruitment in 23/24? Enough to be useful, I think.

#1 Older UK audiences still want to study a Masters

I'll start with the most obvious opportunity I see, which is that more robust trend for PGT recruitment amongst 25-29 and 30+ year-olds. The pandemic catalysed PGT study for this audience in 20/21 and lots stuck around in 21/22. They're still there now in our data, generally feeling more confident and less cost-concerned.

One thing they do want, though, is flexible study. They'll also want other facilities and support (parking, work/study balance timetabling, campus creches). You probably offer a lot of this, but how easy is it to find when you mystery shop your own website and social media?

#2 PGT students are getting older, full stop

It's not just domestic students. The shift in international enrolments towards countries like Nigeria means older audiences there too. They'll want some of those same things above. They'll also have greater needs when it comes to accommodation.

Some of these changes are challenges, but they're the ones to be thinking about if your PGT recruitment is going to grow.

This is also something we're going to try and help with by digging further into data around study intentions and needs for different demographics.

#3 Brexit fog may obscure remaining EU opportunity

The delayed impact of Brexit on PG recruitment trend is probably going to get worse, and this poses obvious challenges for courses and institutions that tend to recruit heavily from the EU.

One thing we often see from our audiences is that prospective EU PGs are less aware of the initiatives they can still benefit from. This 'Brexit fog' feels like a kind of anchoring bias: audiences expect their opportunities to be reduced and therefore overlook (or simply don't look for) initiatives like the Graduate Route or UKRI funding changes.

There are ways to help solve this with content and comms ('Full PhD studentships for EU students: find out more" / "Do you know you can still work in the UK for two years after your Masters, despite Brexit?"). The value in that will depend on your recruitment needs.

#4 PGR might need help to grow

The initiatives that have boosted domestic (postgraduate loans) and international (Graduate Route) PGT simply haven't had the same impact on PGR. And neither has opening up UKRI funding to non-UK students. Instead first-year enrolments on UK PhD programmes are effectively stagnating, with a modest rise in non-EU more than offset by domestic dips and a cliff-edge for EU.

A big problem is that the various caveats for international UKRI funding (only 30% of studentships available; fees ostensibly only covered at domestic rate) don't make this easy for applicants to understand, or for universities to process (potentially a vicious circle).

This problem is bigger than PG marketing and recruitment (the UK has ambitions to be a research and science 'superpower', after all) but teams can help explain the situation for their university and its available PhD opportunities.

#5 International recruitment can't be taken for granted

News just this week confirms that the Home Office are also looking at this HESA data and are not hugely impressed with the boom in international (mostly PGT) recruitment.

We might question whether the Graduate Route should be 'reshaped' less than two years after opening (when nobody has even had the chance to complete one of these visas) but there you go.

Suggestions such as removing the right to bring dependents on a one-year Masters would dramatically reshape PGT (again). Conversely, they might help boost PGR, if PhDs become the only programmes eligible for these rights (and applicants understand those funding changes).

The best we can do is try to identify a wider range of audiences and to think about EU and domestic opportunity, as above.

The data is in for 21/22, but 23/24 is there to play for.

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