Posted on 23 Aug '23

How Much Does a Masters Scholarship Really Need to Be?

  • University scholarships and fee discounts are increasingly important to prospective postgraduates facing economic challenges
  • Unique insights from our student choice platforms reveal that the average value of a UK university Masters scholarship is around £7,500, but awards vary significantly by mission group and subject
  • FindAUniversity want to work with our partners to improve postgraduate funding information for universities and students

Whichever institution you represent, chances are you offer some form of funding or financial support for postgraduate study.

And chances are, at some point, you’ll find yourself trying to allocate those awards or discounts as effectively as possible: using a limited budget to attract, encourage and support the right students on the right courses in the right ways.

And you may well come to the conclusion that this is quite a hard thing to do.

Nobody really knows enough about postgraduate funding

There’s no sector-wide data on universities' postgraduate scholarships, alumni discounts, etc. This feels like a minor issue... until you’re trying to set values for yours (or allocate eligibility) and find that, short of trawling through rather a lot of websites, there’s no way to sense-check or benchmark your decision.

You don’t know how much a Masters scholarship needs to be, because you don’t know how much it typically is.

And neither, of course, do prospective students.

In normal times, this is simply frustrating for them (as they will have to trawl through multiple university websites to identify funding options). But, I’d argue that it’s becoming an even bigger problem now.

The postgraduate funding problem in 2023

I’ve written before about the counter-intuitive nature of the UK’s postgraduate loan offer – a system that almost feels designed to “gotcha” unwary Masters and PhD students progressing from undergraduate study.

Talking about the UK’s PhD funding system, meanwhile, soon starts to sound like a bad rap lyric as you get your PhD from a DTP, funded by UK-RI via the AHRC… (break it down).

This is challenging enough for students (also fun if you’re new to the sector as a marketing / recruitment professional).

And the reality is that even when students have made sense of PG funding, it still won’t be enough for most of them:

Chances are you’ve seen me use this chart in a presentation. It plots the value of an English Masters degree loan against an approximate average for UK Masters fees (based on the old Reddin survey). There’s some napkin math involved, but the conclusion is pretty obvious: the shrinking gap between those lines is what a UK Masters student nominally has left to live on after they’ve exhausted their loan. It might be a bit more in some subjects. It will be non-existent in others.

What this means is that funding from other sources (such as universities) isn't just a nice-to-have; it's borderline essential to enable access to postgraduate study for some students.

Which brings us back to the opening problem: a world in which neither universities nor their prospective students can easily make sense of scholarships, bursaries and other awards is a world that makes postgraduate study even harder to access and support.

This post is a step towards a solution for that.

What we want to do and how we want to get there

Put simply, I want FindAMasters to be the place where students can easily understand what a typical postgraduate scholarship (or alumni discount) is likely to be in their subject area; how common these awards are; and where to find them.

And I want FindAUniversity to be able to make all of that information available to our university partners too. So that, when you’re setting or reviewing a scholarship or discount, you know how it compares across the sector. And you know the kinds of eligibility requirements (be they personal characteristics, need-based, or merit-based) other universities are setting. And, eventually, you know how much impact different scholarships have on engagement with your programmes at the search and discovery stage.

We already list a few thousand university funding awards alongside programmes on FindAMasters but we’re going to need a lot more to do this properly. We have some ideas for how to get there, but if you’d like to help or simply chat about this project, I’d love to hear from you.

In the meantime, let’s take a look at what I can tell you based on the data we do have.

The data we have now

The data in this post is derived from over 500 PGT awards at UK universities, selected and grouped as follows:

  • I’m only including full-time awards with a stated value (taking the upper value in a range)
  • All categorisation by subject area, eligibility, etc is based on manual structuring of the data
  • Awards were only included if they were live as of May 2023 and had been edited since 2020; I’ve made exceptions for the chart comparing subject areas as I needed larger sample sizes and for the chart comparing average award value over time (for obvious reasons)

The results are very much ‘experimental’ for now (in particular there’s no way to say how representative these awards are) but the data we have is still an interesting reference point – and the results feel quite plausible. Let's take a look.

So, how much is a Masters scholarship?

Based on this dataset, the average Masters scholarship at a UK university is £7,410. This isn’t necessarily the ‘typical’ value of an award, though, as certain ‘more generous’ subjects (e.g. Business) may skew the data.

Another way to look at this is to plot the full range of values:

It looks like postgraduate funding awards from UK universities typically cluster at £2-3,000, £5,000 or £10,000 and that scholarships between or above those amounts are much rarer.

I also note, in passing, that none of the awards in this dataset are valued at £13,000. Perhaps university funding teams are superstitious.

Do scholarships vary by mission group?

For the sake of simplicity (and my sanity) I’ve only compared averages for the Russell Group vs non-Russell Group. And yes, it does look like RG universities offer higher postgraduate scholarships:

Perhaps they’re more generous (perhaps they’re also offsetting higher fees) but perhaps RG awards are unevenly represented (they’re about 20% of this sample vs more like 15% of UK universities). It could also be that certain subjects are over-represented at Russell Group universities in this set. Like I say, it’s experimental data.

How much is an average Masters fee discount?

The pattern for fee discounts is similar:

This time I’m giving the modal value (so, the most common discount) as averaging a range of percentages would be odd. It looks like the typical discount is 10% but, again, it’s higher at the Russell Group.

Are fee discounts just for alumni?

Actually, no. Just over half of the discounts in our sample aren’t restricted to alumni progressing from undergraduate to postgraduate study. ‘Non-alumni’ discounts also seem more generous:

This was one of the more surprising things to emerge from the data: although we think of discounts as being about progression, universities appear to be more generous when trying to attract each other’s graduates. Something to bear in mind when reviewing your own fee discounts, perhaps.

How selective are awards?

Only about 19% of the awards in our sample are merit based (requiring a specific undergraduate grade equivalent).

The vast majority ask for a 2.1 or higher with a 1st being preferred. It also looks like these more selective awards are also a bit more generous:

Interestingly, grades don’t correlate with value (having a first doesn’t generally get you more) but there isn’t a lot in it.

Are domestic or international awards more generous?

About 1/3 of the awards in our sample are for domestic students only and about 1/4 were for international (usually specific nationalities). But there’s really no difference between their average value:

This is potentially concerning if it indicates a greater funding shortfall for international postgraduates (facing higher fees). It could simply be that universities are pegging awards to the support they assume domestic students need. Again, I’d hope that better data could inform future decision-making here.

Do funding amounts differ across subject areas?

Yes, definitely:

The ‘scale’ here mostly makes sense (you’d expect to see larger scholarships attached to expensive Business and Management programmes). I’m surprised to see ‘core STEM’ subjects like Engineering and Life Sciences below Arts & Humanities. Perhaps universities feel less need to support these areas directly? Education coming bottom may be because some of these awards are pegged to government funding.

The big caveat is that sample sizes (included in parentheses on the Y axis) are highly variable; again, this is the drawback of working with a limited data set (for now…).

Have scholarship values changed over time?

This is probably the most important question, in light of the points I made at the start of this post. Here we have average values by the year an award was last updated:

I think this trend is fairly plausible and, therefore, interesting.

We see the average value of a UK university Masters scholarship dropping after the postgraduate loan was introduced in 2016. This makes sense, as providers had less need to directly support students who finally had access to student finance (the loan went a lot further in 2016, too).

Values then climb back up a bit from 2019. This may be the effect of universities competing to benefit from the increase in PGT recruitment whilst also raising some funding awards to offset increases in fees during this period.

The size of awards then accelerates during the pandemic. As above, this may be a mix of universities doing their best to support students during difficult times whilst also competing to attract students during an initial boom in PGT interest.

But it looks like the average value of a Masters scholarship has now fallen again, despite the cost of living crisis placing greater barriers before prospective PGT students.

Again, this data isn’t perfect. The number of awards associated with each year isn’t consistent and, crucially, we can’t see the trend for the total number of awards available across the sector; it might be that the average value of universities’ funding for Masters students fell this year but that many more awards were offered.

We don’t know, but I really think we should try to find out.

Next steps

So, I hope the insight here is useful and that, despite all the honest caveats and limitations, it sheds some light on a hitherto murky question.

And I really hope you’re interested in helping us make this kind of data even better and offer it more consistently to students and to universities.

If we’re serious about increasing access to postgraduate study then we need to help prospective students understand the economics of postgraduate study – and we need to understand it better ourselves. From there we can start to properly understand where best to focus for widening participation and how to advocate for better overall support for postgraduate study overall.

We should do these things, and I think we can.

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