1. Overall trends

November 12, 2004

The story of postgraduate education in the UK since the late 1990s is one of the success of universities in expanding masters-level qualifications.

In particular, it has been the ability of universities to attract overseas masters students that has fuelled the 21 per cent growth in the number of new entrants between 1995-96 and 2002-03. By 2002-03, there were 497,500 postgraduate students in the UK.

To understand the growth in this market, it is important to distinguish between the different types of postgraduate. The term is often used loosely to describe students studying for research doctorates. In fact, in 2002-03 only 9 per cent of postgraduate qualifications awarded were doctorates.

In terms of first-year enrolments, students on taught masters made up about half of all postgraduate students in 2002-03.

Students enrolling for diplomas and certificates made up almost a seventh of enrolments, followed by students on postgraduate certificate in education courses.

It has been the growth in numbers of overseas students studying for taught masters degrees that has been truly extraordinary.

The number of full-time entrants at English institutions more than doubled in the three years from 1999-2000. The number of home and European Union postgraduate students on masters courses increased by 13 per cent over the same period.

Expansion in research student numbers has been slower and highly concentrated in old universities. What growth there has been has once again been fuelled by overseas students, whose numbers rose by 28 per cent between 1995-96 and 2002-03. In 2002-03, they accounted for 39 per cent of doctorates awarded.

By contrast, numbers of full-time UK-domiciled first-year postgraduate research students fell in the late 1990s, stabilising only in recent years.

The number of UK students achieving first-class or upper second-class honours degrees increased by 20 per cent over the six years to 2001-02. However, there has been no corresponding increase in UK research student numbers, suggesting that the attractiveness of research study is in decline.

The implications for the UK research base are significant: if UK research students fail to keep pace with the growth of the sector as a whole, there may be a problem in replacing academics in certain disciplines.

The popularity of different subjects has varied enormously in the past seven years. Subjects allied to medicine have seen a 96 per cent growth, much of it fuelled by an increase in the number of part-time students.

This indicates that universities have been very successful at attracting local students into subjects that have only recently moved into universities and colleges.

Computer sciences has grown 81 per cent, fuelled by full-timers.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to tell from the figures whether it is overseas students driving this expansion, although this is highly likely.

While nearly all subjects record an increase, physics and veterinary science both report falls in student numbers.

Alarmingly for physics, it is the only subject recording a drop in the number of research degree students.

Postgraduate education in the UK
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