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Postgraduate education in England and Northern Ireland: Overview report 2013

July 2013 | ref: 2013/14

To:

Heads of HEFCE-funded higher education institutions, Heads of universities in Northern Ireland

Of interest to those responsible for:

Postgraduate strategy and education
This is the first report in a projected regular series providing information about the postgraduate sector in England and Northern Ireland. It sets out numbers and trends in postgraduate provision over the last 10 years, and summarises the work of HEFCE and others over the past year to enhance the evidence base for this part of the higher education sector.

Foreword from Sir Alan Langlands

This report focuses on current trends in postgraduate education in England. It summarises the first 18 months of work carried out by our new postgraduate team, established to tackle an area that impacts on HEFCE’s core interests in education, research, and knowledge exchange, and on the success and sustainability of universities and colleges.

Postgraduate education is receiving an unprecedented amount of attention and comment, not only within the sector itself but in Government and the national media. The vital contribution that postgraduates make to the economy and society – and hence the extent of what would be lost if this provision were threatened – is widely recognised.

As a funder, HEFCE needs to ensure that postgraduate provision is sustainable, but we have a broader interest in promoting the interests of, and opportunities for, postgraduate students, including their progression into research and other careers requiring the highest levels of knowledge and skills. We have, therefore, been proactive in our support of postgraduate provision, deciding in 2012 to maintain funding support for taught postgraduate education, notwithstanding the reductions to our overall teaching funding, and to increase our funding for postgraduate research.

This report responds in part to a request from the Government to improve the evidence base for this part of the sector, and we continue to carry out and commission a considerable amount of work in this area. HEFCE occupies a unique position that enables us to engage with a range of public and private organisations, higher education institutions, Government, the Research Councils and the national academies. This report is intended not only to summarise our own work, but to draw together the contributions that have been made by others during the last year.

The postgraduate sector represents a central, thriving and successful part of higher education.  It has enjoyed many years of growth and has an excellent national and international reputation. However, we cannot be complacent and there is considerable work to be done to sustain the progress made. As well as continuing the research and analysis described in this report, the HEFCE Board has agreed to provide additional funding to support projects that will test and disseminate effective practice in the postgraduate sector, which we hope will provide a platform for further success.

Executive summary

Purpose

1. This is the first report in a projected regular series providing information about the postgraduate sector in England and Northern Ireland. It sets out numbers and trends in postgraduate provision over the last 10 years, and summarises the work of HEFCE and others over the past year to enhance the evidence base for this part of the higher education sector.

2. This report has been produced as part of HEFCE’s response to requests from the Government, through the 2011 White Paper ‘Students at the heart of the system’ and the 2012 grant letter to HEFCE, that we should gather evidence to improve our understanding of the postgraduate sector. These requests were made as postgraduate education was coming under intense scrutiny from the higher education sector, Government and parliament, and the wider public. The reforms to the undergraduate funding model – moving to a system in which grants to universities have predominantly been replaced by loans to students, repayable above a threshold level of earnings – raised concerns that postgraduate funding had been forgotten, and that the increased debt incurred in undergraduate study might dissuade students from further study at a higher level. Alongside this, there was a view that while there was a great deal of data held on the postgraduate sector, they had not been routinely analysed, and there were some areas where information was patchy or absent.

3. HEFCE’s response was to establish a new postgraduate strand of activity, cutting across our core policy interests in widening participation and research and knowledge exchange. We began systematically to analyse the data we held on postgraduate provision, and commissioned work to address some information gaps. We also began to engage more actively with work being undertaken in and beyond the sector to investigate key concerns in postgraduate provision, and we sought opportunities to discuss the issue with sector representatives.

4. This report gives the results of this first year of work. It should be considered in conjunction with our report on trends in transition from first degree to postgraduate study, ‘Trends in transition from first degree to postgraduate study: Qualifiers between 2002-03 and 2010-11’ (HEFCE 2013/13), which sets out one key strand of quantitative data in more detail.

Key points

5. The data that we have investigated show that after a period of steady growth, there have been some recent declines in postgraduate student numbers. This is particularly true in postgraduate taught (PGT) programmes, which are mainly masters degree courses, and in ‘Other postgraduate’ (Other PG) courses, which are mostly regulated vocational courses in areas such as education and healthcare, including postgraduate certificates of education (PGCEs).

6. The majority (71 per cent) of postgraduate research (PGR) students study full-time. Part-time study is more significant for PGT and Other postgraduate, accounting for 43 and 68 per cent of these groups respectively. However, these areas are showing the greatest decline in student numbers. We do not yet know all of the reasons for these declines, although reductions in public sector training and the broader effects of the recession may well be factors.

7. The majority (59 per cent) of all postgraduate students are aged over 25 on entering study. This comprises 62 per cent of PGR students, 53 per cent of PGT and 70 per cent of Other postgraduate students. Recent trends show that people are beginning postgraduate studies at a younger age than they did 10 years ago, perhaps (in the context of higher levels of undergraduate participation) to gain an advantage in the jobs market. Most students, however, take a break of at least a year between undergraduate and postgraduate study. The likelihood of studying part-time also increases with age: in 2011-12, part-time students aged over 25 accounted for 26 per cent of PGR entrants, 35 per cent of PGT entrants and 57 per cent of Other postgraduate entrants.

8. International students have contributed a great deal to the growth of postgraduate education. They make up over a quarter of all postgraduate numbers, but in certain subject areas they are more than half of the cohort, which carries risks if the international market declines.

9. Concern has been raised in the sector about limited access to finance for postgraduate students, who are not eligible for student loans. Our work shows that most students are self-funded, especially on taught courses.  The majority of PGT students (72 per cent) have no financial backing and so must finance their studies themselves or via a bank loan. Not all students are eligible for the loans available, and take up is low even by those students who are, perhaps because of the repayment terms which are harsh compared to the undergraduate student loan.

10. As a masters degree is increasingly an entry requirement for doctoral degrees, this has been identified as a ‘broken bridge’ between undergraduate and research degrees, and a potential constraint on the future diversity of researchers. PGR and Other postgraduate students have a wider range of funding sources, but around 40 per cent of students in each of these groups have no external source of finance. Only 15 per cent of PGR students receive Research Council funding.

11. We are seeking to ascertain what barriers there might be to participation in postgraduate study. Initial work shows that levels of enrolment in postgraduate study differ according to socio-economic background, school background and the institution of undergraduate study.  The issue of affordability is an obvious concern, and there is some evidence that it is increasingly the better off who engage in postgraduate study, especially masters or PhDs. This has potential implications for fair access and social mobility. Work in these areas will be a priority for us in the coming year.

12. Surveys show that postgraduate students are positive about their learning experience, and benefit from it in terms of better skills and employability, as well as from a ‘postgraduate premium’ on earnings. This premium is one manifestation of the value that employers place on postgraduate education, as a source of professional training and accreditation, a supply of the highest level of scientific knowledge and technical skills, and a means for developing and motivating staff. However, the impact of postgraduates on the economy and on society could be better quantified, and we are working with other organisations to investigate this further.

13. We have initiated several work strands to address gaps in information about postgraduate study, to report during 2013-14. They include:

  1. More systematic gathering, through the Higher Education Statistics Agency record, of the fees charged by institutions for PGT courses. HEFCE is maintaining funding for this provision at its level prior to the undergraduate reforms, on the assumption that the absence of student finance will prevent comparable fee increases. This market is, however, deregulated and fees are very variable, with obvious implications for access. Fees for PGR courses tend to be held at the fee levels set by Research Councils.
  2. Investigation of the costs of postgraduate taught courses using the Transparent Approach to Costing (TRAC) methodology.
  3. Investigation of the information needs of taught postgraduate students.
  4. Consideration of different approaches to student finance, taking into account the loan schemes proposed by bodies such as the National Union of Students, and of the contribution HEFCE can make to identifying, supporting and disseminating good practice in facilitating access to postgraduate study.
  5. Working to understand student motivation through the introduction of an ‘intentions after graduation’ survey linked to the National Student Survey.
  6. Research to compare postgraduate provision in other countries with that in England, to determine examples of good practice.

14. We are also involved in work led by others, including a Research Councils UK project to investigate the long-term impact of doctoral graduates in the workplace, Universities UK’s research into employers’ views about masters graduates and the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills’ research into historical demand for postgraduate provision.

15. While our work has demonstrated the significance and vitality of the postgraduate sector, we cannot be complacent. Action is needed to support students and the sector, and thereby to ensure the continued success and sustainability of postgraduate education. HEFCE has a key role, not only as a public funder and policy maker, but as an organisation with access to the data and relationships necessary to establish an overview of what is happening in the sector and bring interested parties together. This cannot, however, be the responsibility of the Government alone. Others with an interest in postgraduate study – including institutions, industry, the professions and banks, as well as students themselves – must also contribute.

16. During 2013-14, we will make £25 million available in a competitive bidding initiative for proposals that will link HEFCE with institutional and other sources of finance to test different ways of stimulating the domestic taught postgraduate market. Projects will be undertaken during 2013-14 and 2014-15, to inform discussions about policy and funding approaches in 2015-16, when the first undergraduates paying higher fees will enter postgraduate education.

17. During the next year, we will continue to gather and analyse new evidence and involve others in developing our policy and funding approaches, as well as maintaining an oversight of other work. We welcome further comments and engagement from all interested parties as we continue to work on this complex and dynamic area of higher education.

Action required

18. This document is for information only.

Enquiries should be directed to:Emma Creasey, tel 0117 931 7225, e-mail e.creasey@hefce.ac.uk

Page last updated 2 July 2013

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