Overseas demand has driven a 245 per cent increase in numbers. Claire Sanders reports.
New universities have seen an explosion in their postgraduate numbers in the past seven years, according to an exclusive survey of postgraduates for The Times Higher .
Between 1995-96 and 2002-03 postgraduates in the former polytechnic sector increased by 65 per cent to 170,855. Even more startling, overseas postgraduate numbers increased by 245 per cent from 10,048 to 34,700 over the same period.
Just over two fifths of all postgraduates are now in new universities.
Geoffrey Copland, vice-chancellor of Westminster University - the most successful of all the new universities in recruiting taught postgraduates - and former head of the then Coalition of Modern Universities, said: "This is one of the unsung success stories of new universities."
Postgraduate Education in the UK , the first comprehensive overview of postgraduates in almost a decade, was produced by the Higher Education Policy Institute.
It shows that the enormous popularity of taught masters degrees, particularly among overseas students, has fuelled the expansion of the postgraduate population as a whole. There are now nearly 500,000 postgraduates in the UK. The expansion has far outstripped that of undergraduates, and postgraduates now make up nearly a fifth of all students.
"The introduction of top-up fees for undergraduates led to a great deal of talk about introducing the market to higher education," Professor Copland said. "But among overseas postgraduates the market has existed for a long time - and new universities have done very well."
The report says postgraduate education in the UK is largely a success story, but contains important warnings for the sector. The expansion of taught masters has led to a plethora of names and titles, making it difficult for students to understand what they are getting from a course.
"It is important that action is taken to rationalise and clarify what is a confusing - and sometimes misleading - jumble of qualification titles," said Bahram Bekhradnia, director of Hepi.
The report also describes overseas demand for postgraduate courses as "volatile" and warns that universities recruiting heavily from one country could suffer bad financial losses if that supply dries up.
Generally though, the universities with the most reliance on overseas postgraduates for income are prestigious universities with a strong position in the market, it says. At the London School of Economics, for example, overseas postgraduates make up 42 per cent of the study body and provide a third of the LSE's revenue.
At Essex University, overseas postgraduates make up just over a fifth of all students and provide 17 per cent of revenue. Paul Walker, head of graduate student recruitment, said that overseas students were important to the university, both culturally and financially. He said that demand from overseas students has always been volatile, adding: "It looks as though things could become more difficult over the medium term."
In terms of taught postgraduates - both home and overseas - the Open University is the leader, although its numbers are driven by home rather than overseas students. It has 16,215 such students. In 2002-03, 84 per cent of these were UK students, with overseas numbers stable in recent years.
New universities, notably Westminster, London Metropolitan and Manchester Metropolitan, come in the top ten along with old universities such as City, Birmingham, Strathclyde, Leeds and Warwick. At Westminster, overseas taught masters numbers have almost doubled (a 96.5 per cent increase) since 1999-2000.
For postgraduate research students the story is very different. Here growth has been slower and concentrated in a few universities. Again, any growth has been fuelled by overseas students, whose numbers increased by 28 per cent in the last seven years.
"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 report says.
Cambridge University has by far the most postgraduate research students (both home and overseas) with 6,260. Oxford University lags behind with 4,335, followed by Birmingham and then Nottingham universities.
'HEALTHY DEMAND' FOR CAMBRIDGE
Cambridge has more research students than any other UK university.
Ian Leslie, pro vice-chancellor for research at the university, said: "Our concentration on science is probably why we have so many research students - in science there are more PhD students per member of academic staff than in the arts and humanities."
In 2003-04 the university had 6,260 research students. This year it admitted 790 UK research students, 405 European Union students and 1,031 overseas students.
Its undergraduates are six times more likely to proceed directly to a research degree than the average English university graduate.
While the Higher Education Policy Institute report raises concerns about the supply of UK PhD students generally, Cambridge has no problems recruiting home students. Professor Leslie said: "We have healthy demand from both home and overseas students to do research degrees."
Offers to UK students rose by 7 per cent this year and by 3 per cent to overseas students.
Cambridge gives overseas students financial assistance through the Cambridge Trusts, but is concerned at how research students will be funded in future.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England seeks to ensure that universities recover the full economic costs of teaching research students.
Universities are not yet sure how this will affect them.
Professor Leslie said: "We are also concerned at proposals to fund research students by subject rather than through quality ratings. We have high-quality ratings and a simple switch to subject bands could be very disadvantageous for us."
Westminster University sees itself as one of the leading universities in terms of the "internationalisation" of UK higher education.
Apart from the Open University it has more taught postgraduates than any other UK university. Nearly a quarter of these come from overseas with 7.5 per cent from the European Union.
Geoffrey Copland, the vice-chancellor, said: "We are in the middle of a large global city and our students will go to work in London and around the world. It has been a deliberate policy to increase our overseas student numbers."
In 1999-2000 the university had 635 overseas taught masters students. By 2003-04 it had 1,248. More than a third of the university's fee income comes from international fees.
Professor Copland described competition from other Anglophone countries as intense and said that the market was "getting tougher".
Steve Berridge, International Marketing Manager, said: "We work across a number of different country markets and match our offerings to appropriate areas of demand - biosciences in southern India, media and communications in Norway, for example."
Westminster takes students from more than 140 countries so that it is not reliant on any one source.
Professor Copland also warned that UK universities must be fully involved in the Bologna process - which seeks to harmonise qualifications across Europe.
Postgraduate Education in the UK 2004