With the growth in domestic and international student demand for postgraduate education, and concerns about contraction in undergraduate student numbers, it’s not surprising that many UK universities are prioritising the growth and development of their postgraduate provision.
However, with research commissioned by Ucas showing that nearly a quarter of current postgraduate students would have made a different choice if they had known what they know now, there’s a need to better understand what motivates postgraduates and why, when and how they make their decisions.
Somewhat surprisingly, almost a third of surveyed students said they felt that they had rushed into applying, perhaps because a similar number started thinking seriously about postgraduate study only at the end of their undergraduate degree.
The research found that, on average, students spend between one and six months exploring and considering their postgraduate choices. But is that long enough to make a truly informed choice, considering that we know that most undergraduate applicants tend to apply nine months before their course starts, and will have researched courses for a few months before that, too?
It’s clear that advice and encouragement from a lecturer or tutor is a major factor in persuading students to consider postgraduate study, particularly for those interested in a research degree. In contrast, taught students are more likely to use information sources such as university websites and prospectuses to explore their options.
Just as at undergraduate level, the main motivation for postgraduate study appears to be the love of a subject and the desire for further understanding, although nearly half of respondents also said that they wanted more career options. This may explain in part why most of the students surveyed (70 per cent) had moved directly from undergraduate to postgraduate study, with further increases (to 75 per cent) if we just look at research students’ responses.
The findings also show that half of respondents decided to study at a different university from where they completed their undergraduate course. This was true for taught and research students, and there was no difference between those who attended a post-92 university versus an older institution.
Key reasons for changing include the desired course not being on offer (36 per cent), students feeling that the course at the new university was a better fit (35 per cent) and almost a third said that they just felt like a change – something more common among research students.
Of those who decided to stay at the same institution, almost half said that a major factor was that they felt at home. Others indicated that the university’s reputation was important – plus, being offered a reduction in fees was a significant factor for four in 10 taught students.
For universities looking to encourage their undergraduates to stay, it seems clear that offering the right courses with fee discounts and retaining an emotional connection with students are the keys to success. If recruitment activities are more focused on bringing new students to the institution, reputation and the specifics of the courses on offer should be front and centre.
So what does it all mean?
As the national focus is on helping students to make good undergraduate choices, it can be easy to overlook transition to postgraduate study.
With half of students deciding to pursue postgraduate study at a different institution, and almost a sixth saying that they wished they had chosen a different subject or university, it’s clear that students want to be able to access and compare clear, accurate information about their options.
Designed in conjunction with students, Ucas’ postgraduate hub helps students to consider the different kinds of postgraduate study and funding available, and search about 22,000 courses. Our new Ucas Postgraduate service also enables universities to connect with millions of current undergraduate students; and for those applying, there’s a new intuitive application process, enabling them to present a complete picture of their achievements.
With the insight from this new research, and insight from the growth of our Ucas Postgraduate services, Ucas will be working alongside universities to help the next generation of postgraduates make well-informed choices.
Helen Thorne is director of external relations at Ucas.