UK universities look to bump income with postgraduates

Increasing numbers of postgraduates appears to be a win-win, with graduates seeking refuge from a poor job market and universities able to make up for lost income, but there are concerns over the quality of those being considered

June 22, 2020
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With many UK universities uncertain of how many undergraduate offer holders will defer their places to avoid online teaching, some institutions have begun to market their postgraduate courses more aggressively to offset a potential downturn in autumn.

The universities are seeking to tap into students’ desire to upskill and avoid the poor job market, but concerns have been raised about the quality of those students, amid reports that some departments are under pressure to admit substandard applicants to mitigate the financial impact of coronavirus, which is expected to include dramatic drops in income from a loss of overseas students.

“I think you will see a surge in postgraduate study as we come out of the pandemic period,” said Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford. “If the job market is flat, you are giving yourself a leg up…and it’s a buyers’ market.”

Matthew Andrews, university secretary and registrar at the University of Gloucestershire, said that postgraduate numbers had been growing for several years since the introduction of government loans, but this year the numbers were expected to be higher than ever.

“I believe more graduates are good for the country, and that applies to postgraduates,” he said. “We’ve been holding virtual open days and they’ve been well attended. It is likely to continue as postgraduate courses are able to accept applications much later than undergraduate courses.”

At the University of Bath, Bruce Rayton, academic director of PGT student recruitment and admissions, said that the “overriding view is that [students] are interested and keen”. The university has already seen a growth in UK and EU applications to postgraduate courses, he said. The institution is also offering enhanced support for those looking to take a postgraduate course, recognising the interruption the coronavirus may have made to their undergraduate studies.

Mark Corver, founder of the consultancy firm DataHE, urged universities to go further and make “a bold offer of a free postgraduate year” to prospective undergraduates if they successfully complete their studies without deferring. Universities need the cash now and “it could seem fair compensation for the experience uncertainty…and gives a compelling reason not to defer,” he wrote in a blog for the Higher Education Policy Institute.

However, other admissions officers have raised concerns about being asked to consider international postgraduates they would not ordinarily accept. In a handful of cases, proposals for research masters that were patently inadequate had been forwarded to departments even when it was clear that students would struggle with independent research, said one admissions officer at a Russell Group university.

“Some of the applications from international students were obviously plagiarised and this was confirmed by Turnitin, but we were asked to see if these projects could be rescued,” she said.

With the average overseas annual postgraduate fee for laboratory-based subjects standing at £17,493 in 2019-20, and £15,097 for classroom-based subjects, the rewards for recruitment can be high. “If you can get an extra 20 or 30 students, that is an extra £1 million in income,” said one department head, speaking anonymously.

With postgraduates applying directly to universities, it is impossible to monitor entry standards in the same way that undergraduate tariff points can be scrutinised, they explained.  

“Standards can vary enormously, even within a single department, let alone a single institution,” explained David Alexander, professor of risk and disaster management at UCL, who said that admissions officers often “struggle to judge aptitude and potential [given] the scarce materials at our disposal”.

But, “if admissions officers are under pressure to accept patently substandard applicants, this is no more than the intensification of a process that was already well under way in many academic institutions”, said Professor Alexander.

However, Rosemary Deem, professor of higher education management at Royal Holloway, University of London, said she was sceptical that universities would seek to use postgraduates to backfill lost funding from undergraduates.

“Most taught courses are quite expensive to run as you don’t have the big volume that you have with undergraduates – they don’t tend to make a lot of profit and some lose money,” said Professor Deem. “I’m sure some institutions are thinking about remaining financially viable, but I don’t think they want to let [just] anybody in, because that will not help anyone in the long run.”

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: UK institutions woo postgrads to boost income

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A Department Head unable to multiply 17.5 x 30 should probably step down from the role.
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