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Executive summary


1. This report presents the trends in transition from undergraduate to postgraduate study, focusing on transition within one year for full-time first degree UK domiciled qualifiers from English higher education institutions (HEIs) between 2002-03 and 2010-11. Trends have been considered over a range of student and course characteristics.

Key points

One-year transition

2. One-year transition rates were calculated for three types of postgraduate (PG) study: PG research, taught masters and other PG1. For 2010-11 full-time first degree UK qualifiers, rates were 1.4 per cent, 7.1 per cent and 3.4 per cent respectively, so that the total proportion found to be studying on a PG course in 2011-12 was 11.9 per cent.

3. Transition rates varied significantly by the subject area of the undergraduate (UG) course studied: total PG transition ranged from 0.9 per cent in medicine and dentistry to 25.4 per cent in physical sciences. The highest transition rates in PG research, taught masters and other PG courses respectively were for physical sciences at 10.4 per cent, humanities at 15 per cent, and law at 9.9 per cent.

4. The relationship between UG and PG subject area was considered, and the overall proportion of those transitioning immediately from first degrees who stayed in the same subject area was found to be 60 per cent. This varied by type of PG studied, from 76 per cent for PG research to 38 per cent for other PG. The low subject retention in other PG study was largely explained by students training to be teachers through a postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE), who were recorded as switching from their UG subject area to education at PG level. Mathematical sciences and languages were subject areas where fewer than half of the UG students transitioning to postgraduate study stayed in the same subject area.

5. Enhanced degree students were included in the first-degree qualifying population. Enhanced degrees are offered in a limited number of subject areas, typically science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. Given their extended nature (typically four years long), they are seen as a potential route into postgraduate research (PGR) study. Transition rates for enhanced degree students to PG research courses were higher than for those qualifying from a traditional first degree: 14.2 per cent compared with 0.8 per cent. Further, transition to taught masters courses was lower for enhanced degree students than for traditional first degree students, 2.0 per cent compared with 7.4 per cent.

6. Undergraduate institutions of study were grouped by the average entry tariff of their young, UK-domiciled, undergraduate entrants. For all types of PG study, transition rates were highest at HEIs with high average tariff scores and lowest at HEIs with low average tariff scores and at specialist institutions. When considering whether those that make the transition remain at the same institution for their PG study, the results were not as explicit. For non-specialist institutions, students were most likely to stay at the same institution if they progressed to PGR and least likely to stay for other PG study. Students at specialist institutions were most likely to remain at the same institution if they progressed to other PG and least likely to stay if going on to PGR.

One-year transition by student characteristics

7. Transition rates for young, full-time, UK-domiciled, first degree qualifiers were considered split by their UG socio-economic background. Three measures were used: participation of local areas (POLAR) quintiles, a state school indicator and parental socio-economic classification group. These measures related to information collected about the student at the commencement of their first degree. They showed broadly similar trends: that students from less privileged socio-economic backgrounds, who were less likely to have entered UG studies, were then less likely to progress to taught masters and PG research courses. They were, though, more likely than other socio-economic groups to progress to other PG courses.

8. Of those qualifiers found to transition to PG, 16 per cent were mature learners, that is those aged 21 and over at commencement of first degree. These students were excluded from the widening participation and characteristics analysis as they displayed different trends from those of young learners and were likely to distort the results. Students who were mature at the time of their UG studies were: less likely to transition to all types of PG and more likely to stay at the same institution. They showed various differences from young students by PG type, subject area and attainment.

9. Men were more likely to progress to taught masters and PG research courses than women and less likely to progress to other PG. As with the differences by socio-economic background, there was variation by type of PG, with women and those from less privileged socio-economic backgrounds more likely to progress to other PG (such as PGCEs). This is likely to be due to a combination of factors including subject area and entry qualification.

10. Differences by sex were consistent by broad subject group, except for STEM taught masters courses, to which women were more likely than men to progress. Men were also more likely to stay at the same institution and to stay in the same subject area when progressing to PG courses the year after qualification. The difference in transition based on sex and POLAR quintiles were most striking for PG research and other PG study, where POLAR background effects alone were not sufficient to bridge the gap in transition for men and women. However, this is likely to be related to the choice of subject area by men and women, and the typical routes to PG study in these subjects.

11. Transition rates were presented by two broad ethnic groups: black and minority ethnic (BME) and white. Additional analysis presented breakdowns for specific ethnic groups within the BME grouping. BME students were more likely than white students to transition to taught masters courses, but less likely to go on to other PG or PGR courses. This could, at least in part, relate to the region of the institution and the subject area studied. The analysis showed that there was much variation by ethnic group and type of PG based on broad subject area, attainment at degree level and socio-economic background.

12. Transition by disabled students was higher for taught masters courses, and lower for other PG courses, than those who did not declare a disability. Analysis of disabled student transition rates were generally based on small numbers when combined with other factors such as broad subject area, first degree attainment and socio-economic background.

13. The funding source for undergraduate tuition fees was considered. Qualifiers without UG tuition fee funding were more likely to transition to taught masters courses but less likely to transition to PG research and other PG courses2. Furthermore, the propensity for non-funded students to transition to taught masters courses held true for all institutional groups.

Duration of transition rate

14. The focus of the report is on transition to postgraduate study in the academic year following qualification. However, some analysis was conducted on 2002-03 qualifiers to indicate how much the reported proportions would change if a longer break of study was allowed in the analysis. This showed that transition to a taught masters or other PG study more than doubled, from around 5 per cent using the one-year transition to around 13 per cent when using the nine-year transition.

15. Allowing for a longer break of study enabled examination of the effect of using the first instance of PG study in the analysis. This was especially important for PG research transition rates, since some courses require students to have first completed a taught masters course. One-year transition to PG research was 1.7 per cent for 2002-03 qualifiers. The nine-year transition rate was 2.7 per cent for those going straight from UG qualification to PGR study, and 4.2 per cent when including students who studied another type of PG before PGR study.

16. Breaks of study are likely to be influenced by a number of factors including subject area and individual circumstances. However, focussing on young qualifiers and considering rates split by the participation of local areas (POLAR) measure of socio-economic background, the difference between transition rates for those from high- and low-participation areas increased as duration since qualification increased.

Further work

17. This work forms part of HEFCE’s ongoing study of postgraduate provision in the UK. Trends in transition will continue to be monitored and further explored through multivariate analysis of the data. The impact of initial transition to a taught masters course prior to PG research study will be an area of additional work. Other areas of interest are the types of student entering postgraduate study, increasing our understanding of part-time and mature learners and the effect of changes in UG funding to transition rates.

Action required

18. This document is for information only.


1. Other PG includes study for postgraduate certificate in education, professional taught qualifications and masters level diplomas and credits.

2. Students with no award or financial backing for their UG tuition fees typically fall into four categories: those not wishing to apply for support, those without support confirmed at the time of data collection, those applying to study for an equivalent or lower qualification than they already hold or those means tested not to be eligible for fee support (this applied to applicants in academic years 1999-00 to 2005-06).

Date: July 2013

Ref: 2013/13

To: Heads of HEFCE-funded higher education institutions

Of interest to those
responsible for:

Student opportunity, Planning, Widening participation, Postgraduate taught and research courses

Enquiries should be directed to:

Hannah White, tel 0117 931 7063, e-mail

Qualitative Analysis for Policy team, e-mail