In contrast to what is happening in competitor nations, the number of students taking postgraduate qualifications has declined in the UK in recent years. And many sector figures are sure that there are even more turbulent times ahead, as future students will be making their decisions about whether to enter postgraduate study with £27,000 in undergraduate tuition fee debt alone already under their belts.
Although the number of postgraduate enrolments has increased overall from approximately 523,800 in 2004 to 536,400 in 2013, the number peaked at about 600,000 in 2011, according to data presented at the Postgraduate Experience Project National Dialogical Conference in July. This is in sharp contrast to what has happened in a number of other nations with highly ranked higher education systems, where growth has remained steady.
Since 2004 the number of postgraduate enrolments in the US has increased by about 455,500, in Australia by 89,300 and in Canada by nearly 61,000, according to figures presented at the event by Michelle Morgan, learning and teaching coordinator at the University of Kingston.
Ms Morgan is the project lead and investigator on the Postgraduate Experience Project, a Higher Education Funding Council for England-backed study involving 11 universities that is testing different ways of supporting students to progress from undergraduate to postgraduate study.
The project is one of 20 funded by Hefce as part of the first phase of its postgraduate support scheme, and aims to increase understanding of the barriers that master’s students face while applying and studying.
Part of the study tracked the attitudes and expectations of applicants and students on postgraduate taught programmes in science, technology, engineering and maths subjects. Around 40 UK-domiciled students at each university were randomly selected for scholarships to cover 100 per cent or 60 per cent of their fees, or for a bursary of £1,000.
A series of surveys and focus groups collected feedback from those who had received scholarships and those who had not. Ms Morgan presented the initial results of the work on finance and entry to study on the first day of the conference. Speaking to Times Higher Education after the event, she said the findings suggest that universities “need to really think about the purpose of postgraduate study”.
“I really strongly believe that we can re-energise the postgraduate market, but we have got to change our thinking…We have really got to look at our course product and think about what the purpose of it is,” she said. “Is it to feed future academics, or is it to skill a workforce?”
Institutions need to think more flexibly about the delivery of such courses, she continued, suggesting that universities could offer and accredit modules individually to make postgraduate study more accessible.
Universities could look at providing master’s level study for the over-30s and the “grey pound”, since the population of under-18-year-olds is declining nationwide, Ms Morgan said. “There is a potential market there; they have got spare income to undertake a master’s degree,” she added.
The survey revealed that for many students, it was the living costs involved in studying at postgraduate level that caused problems. “It wasn’t just about the fees. There were lots of other things: living costs [and] support from the university,” Ms Morgan said.
“Many even said that because of the teaching timetable they couldn’t commute and get from where they lived and be there on time,” she added.
Some 930 master’s students, across nine of the participating institutions, answered a survey about their finances as part of the research. The study found that “the level of anxiety about finance is quite high”, said Ms Morgan, who added: “We tend to forget that students are human beings and they do suffer anxiety.”
Seven per cent of those surveyed said that they had considered withdrawing from their course because of money worries, but less than 1 per cent had actually withdrawn or intermitted for this reason. UK students reported financial anxiety at higher levels than EU and international students.
Just over a quarter of respondents said they were late paying or unable to pay their rent or mortgage, utility bills or travel costs, while 23 per cent had trouble repaying existing debt.
When asked what would be the most viable funding option for support, almost two-thirds said a mix of fee scholarships or alumni discounts, loans and self-funding. Just 14 per cent said it would be a government-backed loan with a repayment rate of 9 per cent on earnings above £21,000 a year, as the government has proposed in a scheme that is to be rolled out from 2016-17.
The research also looked at the growth of integrated master’s courses in STEM subjects offered by universities. The number of students enrolling on such courses, which combine undergraduate and master’s level study as part of a four-year course, almost doubled, from 43,000 to 79,000, between 2007-08 and 2012-13.
These courses are eligible for taxpayer-backed student loans, which has led some to attribute their growth to the dearth of funding available for stand-alone master’s courses. Students currently rely on bank loans or subsidies from family to fund these courses.
But the results of the project suggest that government support is not the key factor in the popularity of integrated master’s courses. The PEP surveyed about 600 students across eight universities who were taking integrated STEM courses, and found that access to a loan to fund the master’s portion of the course was not a significant factor in enrolment. Only 2 per cent of respondents said that being eligible for a student loan was the primary reason for taking the course.
Instead, the course content and the fact that these courses are often needed for specific careers, for example in engineering, came out on top.
If the survey’s analysis is any guide, the provision of postgraduate loans may not be a silver bullet after all.