UK overseas master’s enrolments shot up in year before pandemic

Trend could be linked to boost in demand from India, data suggest

February 9, 2021
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Several UK universities doubled their enrolments of overseas master’s students in the year before the pandemic as institutions appeared to seek other streams of income in the wake of increased competition for domestic students, new figures suggest.

According to data from the Higher Education Statistic Agency, there were more than 32,000 new entrants to master’s courses from outside the European Union in the 2019-20 academic year.

The figures suggest a high proportion of these additional enrolments are likely to have come from India; the number of new entrants to courses of all levels from the country more than doubled in the autumn before the pandemic, compared with the year before. 

Data on individual universities show that enrolment of non-EU postgraduate taught students was twice as high as 2018-19 at more than a dozen institutions, while around half the sector saw growth of a fifth or more.

Mark Corver, co-founder of the consultancy firm dataHE and former director of analysis and research at admissions body Ucas, said that while his team had yet to analyse the 2019-20 data in detail, universities had been turning to master’s students since 2015 as a response to the “becalmed” undergraduate market in the UK.

“In response universities have looked at taught postgraduate [enrolment], attracted by its different demand dynamics and higher per-student-year revenue,” he said.

This had “worked well” for some providers, with new postgraduate loans helping demand from domestic students and master’s courses providing “a good match to already strong international demand for UK HE”.

Martine Garland, an associate lecturer at Aberystwyth University who has studied financial diversification in UK universities, said one disadvantage in targeting taught postgraduates was the “financial uncertainty that a year-long ‘product’ creates”.

However, universities that were in a “a position to compete” and were able to charge high fees for master’s courses would find that “it matters less that the course is only a year”.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said the shift in enrolments to overseas likely reflected factors including the “more positive signals” from the government on international students.

If this had resulted in India growing as a source for such students, rather than China, then this was welcome “given many people have thought UK universities are over-exposed to China”.

“I recognise, of course, that a big increase in any one income stream can be regarded as exposure to new risk, but it could just as well be said to represent less risk by providing additional income,” he said.

Mr Hillman added that while it was still “too early to say” how the pandemic would affect future demand from overseas postgraduates, any downturn could be counterbalanced by a rise in domestic demand for master’s study as a result of a struggling economy.

Dr Corver said he had also seen “strong signals for further postgraduate taught demand growth”, in part boosted by the fact that cohorts of 18-year-old undergraduates were also due to grow over the next decade.

“The pandemic has made universities even more aware that overseas recruitment has different risk profile to home, and the UK component of that future postgraduate taught demand will be attractive to many for that reason,” he said.

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