Postgraduate education rises 16% since the great recession

HEPI’s landmark report on the last decade of UK postgraduate education nods to what might come after Covid-19

There has been a rise of 16% in postgraduate education since the great recession in 2008/9. Using previously unpublished data, the Higher Education Policy Institute’s landmark report, Postgraduate Education in the UK (HEPI Analytical Report 1) by Dr Ginevra House, reveals the state of UK postgraduate education in the years before the Covid-19 crisis struck.

The analysis also considers how postgraduate education was affected by the great recession of 2008, when many people sought to gain more education in the face of economic challenges and when those who already had postgraduate qualifications fared better than others in the labour market.

In addition, it looks at the successful implementation of student loans for home and EU postgraduate students from 2016/17 onwards.

Top 20 key findings of the report

The 150 page report identified the following:

  1. There were 566,555 postgraduate students in 2017/18, of which 356,996 (63%) were in their first year – up 16% since 2008/09.
  2. 65% of new postgraduates are studying for Master’s degrees, 10% are taking doctorates or other research degrees, 7% are doing teacher training and the rest (18%) a range of diplomas, certificates, professional qualifications and modules.
  3. Business & Administrative Studies is the most popular discipline (20%), followed by Education (14%) and Subjects Allied to Medicine (12%).
  4. 53% of new UK-domiciled postgraduates study full-time whereas back in 2008/09, 59% of postgraduates were part-time.
  5. 60% of new postgraduate students at UK institutions come from the UK, while 32% come from outside the EU and 8% from EU countries. For Master’s students, 53% come from outside the UK.
  6. The female:male ratio among new postgraduates is 60:40, or 62:38 among UK-domiciled students alone. In 2008/09, the overall female:male ratio was 55:45.
  7. The gender ratio varies considerably by discipline: women are in a big majority in Subjects Allied to Medicine (77%), Veterinary Sciences (72%) and Education (70%) and men are in a big majority in Engineering & Technology (78%), Computer Science (76%) and Mathematics (71%). Males outnumber females among PhD researchers (51%).
  8. White men, particularly disadvantaged white men, are less likely to undertake postgraduate study than others. Among UK-domiciled postgraduate entrants from the poorest areas, 64% are women and 36% are men.
  9. The proportion of postgraduate students aged under 30 has grown from 52% to 57% since 2008/09, reflecting a broader decline in people accessing lifelong learning opportunities.
  10. The introduction of £10,000 Master’s loans for home/EU students in 2016 has had a big positive impact: UK-domiciled student numbers grew by 29% in one year and by 59% among those from the most disadvantaged areas.
  11. The number of people taking Taught Master’s courses grew by 30% from 2008/09 to 2017/18, but the total has been volatile, particularly among UK students. Among all new postgraduates, just over half (51%) were full-time Taught Master’s students in 2017/18.
  12. Between 2008/09 and 2017/18, UK-domiciled postgraduate entrants increased by 10% but students from overseas grew faster: EU-domiciled student numbers increased by 11% and non-EU international students grew by 33%.
  13. Chinese students formed 38% of the non-EU postgraduate cohort by 2017/18. Such heavy reliance on a single country exposes universities to greater risk from geo-political events.
  14. Since the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, the number of new postgraduate students from EU countries has fallen (by 2% in 2017/18 and another 2% in 2018/19), but the reduction in the value of the pound contributed to a 10% increase in non-EU postgraduate starters in 2017/18.
  15. The great recession following the 2007/08 financial crash witnessed a marked rise in Master’s take-up, as employment opportunities were restricted and people brought forward their plans to study.
  16. The abolition of post-study work visas (announced in 2011 and implemented in 2012) had a negative impact on demand for postgraduate study, most notably within India. The announcement that this policy is to be reversed is welcome but needs communicating quickly and clearly.
  17. Women have a bigger boost to their earnings from postgraduate study, earning 28% more than women with only undergraduate degrees – the comparable figure for men is 12%. But women with postgraduate qualifications still earn 14% less on average than men with the same level of qualifications.
  18. In the last crash, employment among those with postgraduate qualifications was slower to fall and faster to recover than for those with only a first degree, which may signal how the labour market will respond to the current Covid-19 crisis.
  19. Demand for postgraduate education is likely to grow over the long term: there could be an additional 22,750 undergraduates moving directly to postgraduate study by 2030 in England alone. While Brexit could mean a drop of around 11,500 EU postgraduates, successful implementation of the UK Government’s International Education Strategy could see an increase of 53,000 in other overseas postgraduates by 2030, although this partly depends on how the world recovers from the current Covid-19 crisis.
  20. Transnational education has seen substantial growth, more than doubling since 2007/08 to 127,825 postgraduates in 2017/18 and overtaking the number of overseas postgraduate students in the UK. Students studying in this way are excluded from the other figures in the report.

Tumultuous times

Dr Ginevra House, the author of the report, said: “Despite a tumultuous decade, including the 2008 financial crash, restrictive changes to visas and Brexit, the UK’s postgraduate sector has emerged bigger and more diverse than ever before.

The crisis is providing a timely reminder of the importance of a diverse and balanced student body to weather future shocks to the system
Dr Ginevra House

“However, the gains in fair access to postgraduate education – and by extension the professions – delivered by the introduction of Master’s loans may yet stall as rising fees consume most of the funds, leaving little or nothing for living costs. Other challenges to fair access remain, with under-participation by males, by White British students, and by those from less advantaged backgrounds.

“When writing this report, the Covid-19 pandemic had yet to reach its current height, but the risk posed by universities’ increasing reliance on international students was evident. The crisis is providing a timely reminder of the importance of a diverse and balanced student body to weather future shocks to the system, supported by government policies that foster international co-operation and mobility of the world’s brightest.

With the shadow of a new recession ahead… postgraduate education has never been more important
Dr Ginevra House

“With the shadow of a new recession ahead, combined with a rapidly changing, more automated job market, postgraduate education has never been more important, to build the highly skilled, knowledgeable, flexible and independent workforce needed to tackle the challenges of the future.’

Key audience

Maja Maricevic, head of higher education and science at the British Library, said: “Postgraduate students are a key audience for the British Library… The richness of the data in this report will broaden our understanding of the long-term changes, helping us to continue evolving our work to serve postgraduate students even better now and in the future.”

Nick Hillman, director of HEPI, said: “A proper study of UK postgraduate education is long overdue, given the growth it has enjoyed in recent years and the changing demographics of postgraduates. Postgraduate qualifications are increasingly expected by employers and more people want to achieve them.

 … the story in this report is a positive one, showing the power of higher education to [deliver] the skills employers need and pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge
– Nick Hillman

“The higher education sector is in the midst of an horrendous and unprecedented crisis that is pulling the rug from under our institutions. But the story in this report is a positive one, showing the power of higher education to do good, extending people’s options, delivering the skills employers need and pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge.


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“Another big positive is the power of public policy to help individuals. The introduction of taxpayer-supported loans for postgraduate study has opened doors that were previously locked for many people who wanted to continue studying.

“If international postgraduate numbers fall, some courses will become unviable – this is true even if there are more home postgraduates because of the higher fee levels for international students.”


For further information, please contact:

Dr Ginevra House at ginevra.house@yahoo.co.uk | 07554 540095
Nick Hillman at n.hillman@hepi.ac.uk | 07730 718247

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