There was an explosion of taught postgraduate enrolment last year, continuing an upward trend visible since the mid 2010s.
There’s all kinds of reasons why this may have happened – people reconsidered careers and aspirations during lockdown, people invest in training and personal development during an economic downturn, and people have been able to access postgraduate taught course loans (which in England offer up to around £11,000 a year that can be spent on fees or maintenance) since 2017.
For providers, PGT is a valuable and growing source of revenue – in an environment where home undergraduate fees are capped (and falling in real terms) and the competition for international students has become more intense the increased demand from home students has been very welcome.
This first interactive lets you see these patterns by provider. The main graph gives you the numerical growth (or shrinkage) in PGT numbers by providers between 2014-15 and 2020-21 (use the filters at the top to see first year – showing new enrollment – or all years and mode of study), and when you mouse over a dot you see each year broken down by domicile and mode.
What’s immediately apparent is that the growth has nothing to do with the patterns of prestige we are used to applying to undergraduate recruitment. All kinds of providers have been ramping up PGT recruitment, and there’s nothing that really connects the handful of providers experiencing a decline either.
However, the split between home students and international students varies widely. Here we do see that it is in the main Russell Group and Russell Group adjacent providers that are ramping up the international PGT market, whereas others are focused on the home market.
Adding a subject lens – alas, only the most recent two years of data are available here – offers us a deeper insight into what is going on.
There’s been a huge growth, even over a year, of PGT provision in business subjects – and the majority of this is in full-time provision. If you were wondering about the MBA boom (and there is a boom, though we don’t know anything about modes of study here), this doesn’t all look like the traditional pattern of established managers (or management role candidates) studying part-time.
You can also see evidence of professions where continued professional development – often in the form of a postgraduate qualification – is expected. Law, nursing, medicine, engineering, social work, education, and allied healthcare (some of which shows up in social sciences) make up a substantial proportion of PGT activity.
PGT fees are set by providers and vary wildly – there’s not even a single list (that I know of) of fees across the sector so we’re very much in the “what the market will bear” territory. International postgraduate students are substantially higher than those charged to home students (and are more likely to be full time), but there is an income boost to providers whatever the direction of expansion
Here’s the income related to PGT provision at every provider that returns data to HESA. In most (but not all) places you can see a steady growth in income over the past few years.
The UK PGT market changed substantially in 2017 with the introduction of postgraduate loans. In 2022 these will allow students in England registered on eligible courses to access up to £11,386 to cover fees or living costs. This is a per-course loan payment – the same amount is available for full-time and part-time study (including distance learning), and most conventional masters courses confer eligibility.
Regulation and quality
Given the growth of taught postgraduate provisioning, it is surprising that there is so little attention paid to regulating this aspect of sector activity. Despite being discussed several times, and even announced as a pilot earlier this decade, there is no postgraduate taught National Student Survey. We do see graduates of taught masters programmes in graduate outcomes data, but there is no attempt to compare outcomes to the situation of the graduate before the course started. The AdvanceHE Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey (PTES) is a useful exercise, but is based on a self-selecting sample of providers.
The regulatory approach to taught postgraduate provision outcomes (and indeed research postgraduate provision outcomes) is based on the approach to undergraduate provision. There are (or will be) thresholds for continuation, completion, and progression. Again, this approach does not take into account the status of those entering a postgraduate course – providers offering professional training will look better than those offering masters with a less vocational focus simply because the majority of students will already be employed in a skilled role. Measures of continuation and completion do not take into account the flexibility often offered to postgraduates – who may choose to transfer from full to part time study, or will vary their own study intensity, due to work or family pressures.
The Office for Students’ Teaching Excellence framework does not examine postgraduate study at all.
In other UK nations, cyclical external quality assurance processes look at the whole provider and will examine the way quality in postgraduate provision is assured and maintained. In Scotland, the Enhancement Themes apply equally to undergraduate and postgraduate provision.
Ironically, postgraduate taught provision represents a purer manifestation of the market for higher education than undergraduate provision. Most entrants already have an undergraduate degree (indeed, it is usually mandatory), so already have higher education experience on which to base decisions about study. Though many do follow postgraduate courses out of interest or passion, there is a clear vocational slant to much provision – postgraduate students are generally clearer about their intended outcomes (and expectations from the course) than undergraduates.
Though for undergraduate study we take a fairly torturous route to convince students to act like customers, at postgraduate level the relationship is clearer. Money (whether their own or from a loan) is paid directly by the student to their university.
One visible manifestation of this is an overrepresentation of postgraduate students in complaints that reach the Office for the Independent Adjudicator. Some 45 per cent of all complaints come from postgraduates (a group that makes up just 26 per cent of all eligible students). The personal and financial commitment to study would appear to make postgraduates more likely to seek redress when expectations are not met.
Postgraduate taught students are the repeat customers of higher education. Whereas most undergraduates have a single experience (one course, one provider) of higher education, postgraduate taught students clearly appreciated it enough to come back for more (and PGR students liked it so much they wanted to do it as a career!).
Because of this expectations are higher – and a PGT student will have a clearer sense of what to expect in terms of both provision and outcomes. We noted in analysing the experiences of undergraduates in rapidly growing courses (via the NSS) that expansion can often manifest in a detriment to student experience – there are simply less staff and less resources to go around.
In thinking about PGT as an extra undergraduate qualification in regulation- not thinking about student starting points in outcomes measures, seeing flexibility in provision as failure – we severely limit how much we know about these students and their expectations. Though PTES is a credible and useful temperature check for the providers involved, it captures the experiences of only a very small proportion (an unrepresentative eleven per cent) of the nearly 630,000 students that were enrolled last year.
I’d hope that I could extrapolate from that 78 per cent satisfaction rate – because otherwise I can only really rely on anecdotes. I know a fair few current postgraduates on taught courses, and none of them are happy with what they are getting – when they tell me what they are experiencing on their course I don’t really know what to say. I feel like we need to find out more about the postgraduate experience – and that we need to focus more regulatory attention on what students are actually looking for from PGT and whether they are getting it.
I’ve plotted postgraduate taught student numbers by CAH top level and principal subject for each provider on these two dashboards.