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Executive summary


1. This report looks at transitions from first degree qualification to postgraduate study. It considers students’ first instance of postgraduate (PG) enrolment and looks at trends across one‑year, three‑year and five‑year transition periods. Multiple instances of PG study are also considered, focusing on the route taken to reach graduates’ highest level of PG study. Trends are examined for qualifiers from 2002‑03 to 2013‑14,and split by various characteristics and subject areas.

2. This analysis updates and extends the work presented in ‘Trends in transition from first degree to postgraduate study’ (HEFCE 2013/13). It is published alongside a set of interactive data and graphs which allow the reader to explore in more detail some of the trends discussed here. These can be found on the HEFCE website at

3. The report analyses entry into three levels of postgraduate study: postgraduate research (PGR); postgraduate taught (PGT) and other postgraduate (OPG). Broadly, PGR includes PhDs and research based masters degrees; PGT includes taught masters degrees; and OPG includes postgraduate certificates and diplomas (including Postgraduate Certificates of Education (PGCEs1)) and institutional credit.

Key findings

Overall transition rates to postgraduate study have fallen over the last decade, although transition to PGT courses has seen a slight increase

4. The rate of one‑year transition into any PG course fell between 2002‑03 qualifiers and 2013‑14 qualifiers, from 13.0 per cent to 11.5 per cent. This was, in part, due to a fall in the rates of transitions to OPG. The rate of transitions into PGT was 6.5 per cent for 2013‑14 qualifiers, which is a small increase on the 6.1 per cent rate for 2002‑03 qualifiers, but a decline from the peak of 8.3 per cent for 2008‑09 qualifiers. The rate of transition into PGR has remained broadly constant and was 1.5 per cent in for 2013‑14 qualifiers.

Disadvantaged students are less likely to undertake postgraduate study

5. First degree qualifiers from the highest participation areas according to the Participation of Local Areas (POLAR) measure (POLAR quintile 5) were more likely to go into PGT and PGR study than those from the lowest participation areas (POLAR quintile 1). For 2013‑14 qualifiers, the one‑year transition rate to PGT was 7.5 per cent for quintile 5 students compared with 5.3 per cent for quintile 1 students. The rates into PGR were 1.6 per cent compared with 1.3 per cent. The difference between these groups has grown since 2002‑03, as quintile 1 graduates have become less likely to transition into either PGT or PGR. This remains the case when looking at the proportions in PG study three or five years after graduation. It means that those least likely to go into higher education in the first place were also least likely to transition to PGR or PGT study, even after a break in study.

Black and minority ethnic students have higher transition rates to postgraduate taught courses

6. Black and minority ethnic (BME) graduates were more likely than White graduates to go into PGT study immediately after graduating, and also more likely to return to PGT study after a break. However, the difference between these groups has narrowed over time. One‑year transition for 2002‑03 qualifiers was 9.0 per cent for BME qualifiers and 5.6 per cent for White graduates, but by 2013‑14 it was 7.1 per cent and 6.3 per cent respectively.

7. Conversely, White graduates were more likely to immediately enter PGR study than BME students, with 1.7 per cent versus 1.0 per cent for 2013‑14 qualifiers. This continues to be true when allowing for a break in study and also when looking at different routes to PGR study. Despite BME qualifiers being more likely to transition to PGT study, they were less likely to transition to PGR via PGT. White qualifiers had higher transition rates to PGR both directly and via PGT routes, with transition to PGR via PGT at 0.8 per cent for BME students and 1.3 per cent for White students among 2009‑10 qualifiers.

A gender gap persists in postgraduate study

8. Male graduates were more likely to progress into PGR study than female graduates. There were 2.1 per cent of male graduates studying at PGR level in the year after graduation, compared with only 1.0 per cent of female graduates in 2013‑14. In part this is due to the proportion of male students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects at undergraduate level, as it is more likely that STEM graduates will proceed to PGR study. However, male graduates are also more likely both to return to do PGR after a break in study and to enter PGR after studying at PGT level.

9. Male graduates were also more likely to enter PGT study than their female counterparts. 7.1 per cent of male graduates in 2013‑14 entered PGT study in the year after graduation, compared with 6.1 per cent. However, unlike for PGR transition rates, the difference between male and female transition rates is smaller once breaks in study are allowed for, as female graduates are more likely to return later to study PGT.

10. Female graduates were typically twice more likely to go onto OPG study (which includes PGCEs) than male graduates, and continued to be more likely to transition to OPG even after a break in study.

Uptake of postgraduate study differs greatly by subject

11. The highest transition rates to PGR are in STEM subjects, regardless of the transition period: specifically in chemistry and material sciences, and physics and astronomy, which have five‑year transition rates of 24.5 per cent and 24.1 per cent respectively among 2009‑10 graduates.

12. The highest rates of transition to PGR via PGT are also in STEM subjects. However, relative to the direct PGR transition rates, subjects in arts, humanities and social sciences rely much more on PGT as a stepping stone to PGR study.

13. Graduates across all subject areas undertake OPG study, partly because some subjects require professional qualifications for practice, but mostly because of the number of graduates undertaking OPG in education. Rates of transition to OPG in education were particularly high for sports science at 13.5 per cent, mathematical science at 12.5 per cent and European modern languages at 13.4 per cent.

Action required

14. This document is for information only.

1 This does not include Professional Graduate Certificates in Education.

Date: 14 July 2016

Ref: HEFCE 2016/14

To: Heads of HEFCE-funded higher education institutions

Of interest to those
responsible for:

Student opportunity, Planning, Widening participation, Postgraduate taught and research courses, Admissions tutors, Postgraduate education practitioners

Enquiries should be directed to:

Rebecca Titchiner, tel 0117 931 7407, email or Quantitative Analysis for Policy Team, email