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What do we know about the UK’s postgraduate students?

2 August 2022

The UK’s postgraduate population exploded during the pandemic – but who are they, and what are some of the policy pressures around this demographic?

This blog has been kindly contributed by Dr Diana Beech, Chief Executive Officer of London Higher – the representative body for over 40 universities and higher education colleges in London.


Postgraduates are a significant part of the student body in the UK. Postgraduates study for a wide range of qualifications: some are enrolled on taught Master’s courses, some are studying for research Masters or PhDs, and others are enrolled on more applied postgraduate courses such as PCGEs (teacher training qualifications).

The latest data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) tells us that over 743,000 students enrolled on postgraduate courses in the UK in the academic year 2020/21, with the majority of these students enrolled on postgraduate taught courses. This is from a population of 2.75 million students studying in the UK.


Postgraduates in profile

Most postgraduates tend to study full-time, although the number of postgraduates choosing to study part-time has increased to around 142,000. According to HESA data, two London institutions take the largest numbers of postgraduates, namely University College London (UCL) and King’s College London (KCL). However, they are followed closely by the University of Manchester, the University of Glasgow, the University of Birmingham and the University of Edinburgh, showing postgraduate talent is evenly spread across the regions.

Most postgraduate students in the UK are domestic students, with 453,000 postgraduates coming from across the four parts of the country. A further 290,000 postgraduate students are from elsewhere in the world, with the bulk of these from outside the European Union.


A growing market

The postgraduate student population has been steadily growing in the UK over the last 10 years. In 2010, around 589,000 postgraduate students were enrolled at UK universities; that number is now around 743,000, marking a growth of over 150,000 postgraduate places over the decade.

The sharpest increase has occurred over the past year, with the number of postgraduate students growing from around 643,000 in 2019/20 to 743,000 in 2020/21 – that’s an increase of 100,000 postgraduate students in a year.

The bulk of this growth has been seen in the postgraduate taught market, with the population having grown by 16 per cent on the previous year, likely a result of the uncertainty that was cast over graduate job prospects at the time. For many students coming to the end of their undergraduate degrees in the summer of 2020, enrolling on a postgraduate course seemed a much safer bet to ride out the pandemic than trying to enter the precarious jobs market.


Policy pressures

The growth in the UK’s postgraduate numbers can also be explained by domestic policy, as UK students are now eligible for Master’s loans, making it easier than ever before for ‘home’ students to access the funds to stay on for postgraduate education. Since these loans were introduced in 2016/17, numbers in the postgraduate taught market have risen from around 282,000 in 2015/16 to 446,000 now – an increase of 58%.

What is worth noting though is that the number of first-year students enrolled on postgraduate research courses has not really changed much over the past decade, likely due to the increasing competition for fully funded PhD places and the nervousness of students to commit to taking on another three or four-year doctoral loan. Moreover, until recently, competitor countries such as Australia, New Zealand, the USA and Canada were able to offer postgraduates much more appealing post-study work prospects.

So, in many ways, the UK is playing catch up with incentivising postgraduate research students to take a punt on the UK for their long-term career ambitions, although that is now thankfully changing thanks to the three-year graduate visa for PhDs, which should help to boost postgraduate research numbers.

With Government plans to introduce the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE), we do need to make sure we are not inadvertently fracturing the postgraduate talent pipeline. If this Government – or indeed the next – were to bring in some form of student number controls at the undergraduate level or implement the LLE in a way that it ends up incentivising against large numbers of individuals from going on postgraduate study, then it is likely that the growth of the postgraduate market could stall. This would be a travesty not just for people’s future opportunities but for our country’s advanced skills, knowledge and research base.


Meaningful action

For now though, given our large postgraduate community, it is imperative we concentrate on enhancing the postgraduate student experience. This means universities need to be working hard to ensure postgraduate students leave fully satisfied with their time on their courses. As these may only be a year in length, it is essential we get the postgraduate support offer in place from the start.

While many consider undergraduate study as the ultimate ‘right of passage’, the transition to postgraduate study can be just as daunting as students are expected to be more self-disciplined and some may also be moving to a new city or country for their studies. Wellbeing support is tantamount to help students cope with the unique pressures of postgraduate life – from dealing with the demands of intense courses through to working long hours in labs or in isolation, as is the case for many Arts and Humanities PhD candidates.

With postgraduate students typically being older, too, some may also need support with balancing extra-curricular activities with family or work commitments and may require suitable accommodation for their dependents and families. Yet, whatever their unique circumstances, what today’s postgraduates ultimately want from their time at university is to feel they belong, to feel just as valued as their undergraduate counterparts, and to feel that their institutions are setting them up for success, however they choose to define it.


You can hear more from Diana in our recent Accommodation Matters podcast episode on postgraduate students’ accommodation needs:

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