Postgraduate sector driven by overseas students

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A major study of the UK postgraduate landscape has discovered a dominant shift in postgraduate education since 2004.

The report, commissioned by the British Library and Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) into postgraduate education, focused on current numbers of students, profiles and trends, regional disparities and costs and benefits.

Over 270,000 students enrolled for a postgraduate course in 2007-08, with the sector seeing growth of 27% in masters’ degrees and 9% in doctoral degrees. However, 50% of masters’ students and 44% of doctoral students are international students. This recognises the strength of the UK’s research base but also demonstrates the need to encourage more UK based students to undertake postgraduate study in the UK.

With more women than men, amongst UK-domiciled students, undertaking postgraduate study, these figures highlight the increasing accessibility of UK academia. Women now undertake 57% and 62% of all full-time and part-time postgraduate degrees respectively. Further, with science subjects such as engineering and technology, biosciences and physical sciences dominating the postgraduate arena, this reflects the support provided by Research Councils and other institutions.
The report also highlights the issue of fees and costs for postgraduates. The increase in masters’ fees appears not to have acted as a deterrent, with the number of masters’ students continuing to rise. However, fees for overseas students have increased at an even faster rate, between 37-46% depending on the subject, which may in the long-run prove problematic for institutions trying to attract overseas postgraduates.
Although postgraduates do achieve higher salaries on graduation, salary premiums have decreased slightly, with salaries of those with first degrees now closer to those with postgraduate degrees. However, postgraduates are far more likely to enter the professions: 3.5 years after graduation, 94% of postgraduates are employed in the top professions, compared to 78% of undergraduates. Therefore, postgraduate education needs to remain economical if policies aimed at widening access to the professions are to succeed in making top jobs available to those from less economically advantaged backgrounds.

Key findings of the report include:

  • Student numbers - The postgraduate sector has increased by 12% since 2002-03, with the biggest growth area in masters’ degrees by 27%.
  • International students – the big driver of the growth in the postgraduate sector has been from overseas students: 50% of masters’ students and 44% of doctoral students are from overseas. UK postgraduate students have only increased by 3% since 2002-03.
  • Gender – Women now outnumber men by 60:40 in postgraduate study, and even in research postgraduate study, where men remain in a majority, women now make up 48% of the student population (up from 45% in 2005).
  • Salaries – Pay premiums of postgraduate study have decreased and are now closer to salaries of those with first degrees.
  • Jobs – 94% of postgraduates are more likely to get a role in the professions compared to 78% of undergraduates. 

Joanna Newman, the British Library’s Head of Higher Education, said: “The findings of ‘Postgraduate Education in the United Kingdom’ study provides a fascinating overview of the current trends, issues and challenges facing the postgraduate sector. The growth of the international postgraduate community and increase in women undertaking postgraduate study demonstrates the leading role the UK is playing in the postgraduate sector. This is helping to create an international market place for research students who collaborate to contribute hugely to the UK’s research output, knowledge economy, innovation and economic advancement. However, this report also raises issues and challenges that the academic community faces, such as rising fees, number of UK domiciled postgraduates and salary premiums. All these issues need to be addressed to ensure the sustainability of the UK’s competitive postgraduate offer.”