Students on master’s-level courses increase 22%, DfE data shows

Figures from the Department for Education show that growing numbers are pursuing master’s-level course – but fewer students than at any point since 2015 are pursuing level 5 qualifications

Figures from the Department for Education show a 22% increase in English-domiciled students studying master’s-level courses. 

Data for 2020/21 shows there were 1,949,985 higher-level English-domiciled learners in further and higher education providers in England, a year-on-year increase of 12%. The figures cover those living in and studying in England on level 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 courses. 

There were 860,540 new entrants, accounting for 44% of all higher-level learners: students on degree and master’s-level courses account for the bulk of this intake. 

  • Level 4 – such as a higher apprenticeship or higher national certificate (HNC): up 3%
  • Level 5 – such as a foundation degree or a higher national diploma (HND): up 6% 
  • Level 6 – such as a bachelor’s degree and degree apprenticeship: up 10% 
  • Level 7 – such as a master’s degree: up 22%
  • Level 8 – such as a doctorate: up 7%. 

Of new starters, 27.9% were studying level 7 courses and 54.1% level 6 courses compared to 8% on level 4 and 8.5% on level 5. Higher education providers accounted for 86% of new entrants compared to 6% at FE colleges and 7% at private training providers.

Since 2015/16, the share of higher-level learners studying at levels 4 and 5 has dropped from 21% to 16.5%. In real terms, the number of level 4 students has only risen 4.4%; for level 5, numbers actually fell 15.7% over the same period.

Current DfE ministers have repeatedly pledged to increase the number of learners at levels 4 and 5. 

Some declining trends have reversed, latest figures show. Part-time student numbers rallied in 2020/21 after year-on-year falls since 2015/16, reaching 147,415 – a figure just below where they were six years ago. Students pursuing apprenticeships rose from 26,870 to 97,490 – and apprenticeships now account for 46% of level 4 and 37% of level 5 students. 

The new DfE statistics show the socioeconomic background of new entrants using the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD). Entrants to levels 4 and 5 were statistically more likely to have come from the least advantaged backgrounds than entrants to levels 7 and 8. 

At level 4, new entrants were statistically evenly spread across the quintiles, with the greatest share (20.6%) from quintile 2 (the second-most deprived). At level 5, entrants from quintile 1 (most deprived) made up the largest percentage of new entrants (23.8%). 

Read more: Government funds Open University to open courses in higher education ‘cold spots’

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