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Key trends among UK Masters graduates

February 2019

Which subjects are popular at Masters level? How have the employment prospects of Masters graduates changed over the past five years? And which occupations are proving most attractive?

More Masters graduates enter the labour market each year. An examination of the subjects they studied and their outcomes in HESA's Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education report reveals whether they behave differently today compared with previous cohorts.

Number of non-EU graduates increases

The number of Masters graduates originally domiciled in the UK declined after 2012/13, with growth resuming in 2015/16 - although the current total (68,470) still falls short of the 2012/13 figure (70,560).

Fewer students from other EU countries are opting to study their Masters at UK institutions, with a 7% decline in graduate numbers since 2012/13. By contrast, the UK remains an attractive destination for non-EU students, evidenced by a 7% rise in graduate numbers during this period.

More students from the lowest-participation backgrounds are progressing to Masters-level study, with a 10% increase in graduate numbers since 2011/12. The rise was particularly prominent after postgraduate loans came into effect. Within the same timeframe, the number of individuals from high-participation backgrounds declined by 3%, thereby narrowing the gap slightly.

Management studies is back on top

Looking at the changes in subjects studied is a useful indicator of which courses are competitive so that universities can prepare, where appropriate, for increased demand.

Management studies is currently the most popular subject studied at Masters level, and this has been the case since 2015/16. It previously fell from first place in 2011/12 to third the following year before regaining the top spot.

Masters graduates in 2016/17 were more likely to be in full or part-time work than their counterparts five years ago

Psychology is growing in popularity, rising from fourth place in 2011/12 to first in 2014/15. It has remained the second largest contributor of Masters graduates for the past two years.

From 2012 to 2013, academic studies in education accounted for the largest segment of graduates, before falling to third place for three consecutive years. The number of graduates from this field has declined by a quarter, from 3,605 in 2013/14 to 2,705 in 2016/17.

The majority of popular subjects at Masters level have experienced a surge in graduate numbers - a likely consequence of the introduction of postgraduate loans. The largest increases since 2011/12 have been in:

  • anatomy, physiology and pathology (179%)
  • nursing (138%)
  • sports and exercise science (116%)
  • sociology (102%)
  • finance (99%)
  • psychology (94%)
  • marketing (92%)
  • computer science (74% since 2013/14).

Unemployment is significantly down

Masters graduates in 2016/17 were more likely to be in full or part-time work than their counterparts five years ago, while their employment preferences reveal some noteworthy changes.

The proportion going into self-employment was 7.9% - that's a 0.7 percentage point drop from the 2011/12 figure. Zero-hours contracts have increased year-on-year since 2014/15 (+23%), and Masters graduates today are less likely to be doing voluntary work (-33%) or temping (-38%) than they were five years ago. Conversely, there was a 13% increase in the number employed on permanent or open-ended contracts.

The unemployment rate has declined significantly from 6.9% in 2011/12 to 5.2% in 2016/17, although the latest figure was marginally higher than the previous year (5%).

Further study numbers appear to fluctuate, rising in 2012/13, followed by a period of decline until 2015/16, when the figures rose and then fell again. Combining work with study is a less favoured option among graduates today (3.1%) than it was in 2011/12 (5%).

Masters graduates enter a range of industries

Very little has changed regarding the most dominant industries that Masters graduates go into, but not all have managed to successfully draw in more graduates year-on-year.

Since 2011/12 the hospital activities industry has accounted for the largest intake of Masters graduates - and the number of graduates entering this industry has increased by 26% in the past five years. Tertiary education was the second most preferred industry, although the number of entrants does appear to fluctuate slightly each year.

The regulation of the activities of providing health care, education, cultural services and other social services industry continues to be the third most popular, although it has suffered a 10% decline in graduates employed since 2011/12.

The general secondary education industry is also struggling to reach the high volume of Masters graduates it once had in 2013/14 (1,765 graduates compared with 1,240 in 2016/17). Primary education (-22%) and post-secondary non-tertiary education (-27%) have also followed this downward trend.

Engineering was one of the most popular industries to experience a significant growth in numbers, rising from 12th place in 2012/13 (530 graduates) to seventh place in 2016/17 (745 graduates).

Other growing industries highlighted in the DLHE data since 2011/12 include:

  • computer programming (154%)
  • other human health activities (63%)
  • legal activities (29%)
  • artistic creation (40%)
  • advertising agencies (31%)
  • real estate (110%).

Education is no longer the dominant occupation

The total number of Masters graduates in professional-level employment six months after graduation (30,065 in 2016/17) has increased since 2011/12 when it was 27,245. However, this rise was not linear, with the numbers falling in 2013/14 and 2014/15.

For four consecutive years (2012-2015), secondary education teaching professional was the most common occupation entered. A 16% decline means it is now the third most popular destination, having been overtaken by social work and nursing.

Five years ago, three of the top five jobs entered by Masters graduates were in education. In 2016/17 this was reduced to one, highlighting a shift in destinations. Fewer sought careers as higher education teaching professionals, which fell from the third most popular destination in 2011/12 to seventh by 2016/17.

The proportion of Masters graduates stating that their qualification was a formal requirement for their job has increased by 20%

Common occupations experiencing declining Masters graduate intakes were often related to education, notably teaching professionals not otherwise classified (n.e.c.), primary and nursery education teaching professionals, and further education teaching professionals. This is a trend that will no doubt exacerbate the national issue of shortages in this sector.

By contrast, nursing has risen from fifth position to first over the past five years, with a 74% increase in Masters graduates employed in this profession.

Significantly more Masters graduates opted for a career as a business professional in 2016/17 than in 2011/12 (+54%), elevating it from ninth most popular to fourth. During this period, marketing has also climbed two places to fifth most popular (+36% of entrants).

Additional areas with a growing Masters graduate intake include:

  • finance and investment analysis (36%)
  • biochemists (59%)
  • therapy professionals (80%)
  • chartered surveyors (84%)
  • physiotherapists (41%)
  • programming and software development (40%)
  • civil engineering (51%)
  • welfare and housing associate professionals (37%)
  • sales accounts and business development managers (28%)
  • medical practitioner (31%).

Occupations with inconsistent graduate numbers over the past five years include human resources and industrial relations officers, management consultants and business analysts, business and financial project managers, and journalists and newspaper editors.

More employers value Masters study

The proportion of Masters graduates stating that their qualification was a formal requirement for their job has increased by 20% since 2011/12. A greater number of graduates also reported that it gave them an advantage despite it not being a formal requirement (+19%).

Masters graduates in 2016/17 were more likely to state that the level of study was the most important aspect to their employer than they did in 2011/12 (+20%). These statistics suggest that there could be a growing demand among employers for higher-level qualifications.

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