UK postgraduate sector’s reliance on Chinese students spotlighted

Hepi report offers both negatives and positives on outlook for postgraduate recruitment in wake of pandemic crisis

May 14, 2020
Tourists enjoy the amusement facilities at Chinese Theme Park, Beijing of China
Source: Getty

The UK’s postgraduate sector has increased its reliance on international students in the past 10 years, according to a report for the Higher Education Policy Institute that offers a mixed outlook on potential recruitment trends in the wake of the pandemic crisis.

The study, written by Ginevra House, an independent researcher who specialises in international higher education, found that between 2008-09 and 2017-18, the number of non-European Union postgraduates in the UK increased by 33 per cent.

In 2017-18, 53 per cent of master’s enrolments were non-EU international students.

Overall, 356,996 postgraduate students started courses in 2017-18, up from 306,654 in 2008-09, a 16 per cent increase in starters. The majority – 65 per cent – of postgraduate students are pursuing a master’s, with doctoral and other research postgraduates accounting for 10 per cent of the cohort.

The report shows that the majority of the international postgraduate students in the UK are Chinese, who made up 38 per cent of the non-EU postgraduate cohort in 2017-18. Chinese student numbers have risen by 21 per cent since 2014-15.

There are fears that the pandemic crisis will precipitate a huge drop in the number of Chinese enrolling in the UK next year.

However, the report notes that while the number of international students in the UK may fall in the short term, there has been “a steady expansion” in the number of overseas students pursuing UK postgraduate degrees abroad through transnational education, showing that there are other opportunities for UK universities to tap into the international market.

In 2017-18, there were more international postgraduates studying in this way (127,825) than there were EU and non-EU students in the UK (111,920).

The report also notes that there could be parallels between the coming recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the recession caused by the 2008 financial market crash, which saw a jump in the number of UK enrolments on master’s courses.

According to the report, the number of EU students has fallen since the UK’s vote to leave the bloc, dropping by 2 per cent in 2017-18 and a further 2 per cent in 2018-19.

Since 2008, the report notes, UK-domiciled postgraduate enrolments have risen overall by 10 per cent, but their numbers have been “volatile” within that period.

After the 2008 uptick in UK master’s students, there were “years of decline and stagnation”, followed by a rise in 2016 – of 29 per cent – when loans for master’s study were introduced. The government’s introduction of loans has also increased the number of disadvantaged students pursuing a master’s: students from non-professional backgrounds now form 49 per cent of the cohort, up from 35 per cent in 2008-09.

However, the average tuition fees for master’s study for UK and EU students “have inched closer to the maximum value of postgraduate loans in England and, in some instances, have overtaken them, leaving little or nothing for students’ living costs”, the report says.

Dr House said that while it was great to see that the loans had boosted take-up, having the cost of fees consume a big chunk or all of the loan means that such courses may remain inaccessible to those who are unable to cover their living costs while studying. “Perhaps we need to look at how master’s degrees are funded,” she added.

Dr House suggested that the pandemic would likely have a big impact on the postgraduate sector, and not just because of the over-reliance on international students, which was “a big risk-factor”. After the 2008 crash, those with postgraduate degrees were better insulated from the damage done to the job market, so there would potentially be an increase in students taking up postgraduate degrees in the wake of the virus crisis, she argued.

“Whatever’s coming, a postgraduate degree gives you more flexibility and skills,” she added.

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