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Will postgraduate enrolments surge post COVID-19?

June 2020

In the recession that followed the 2008 financial crisis there was a significant increase in students taking up postgraduate study rather than attempting to enter a difficult jobs market - and early indications are that the same is happening today

As the UK's economy heads toward its 'sharpest recession on record', it's likely that the graduate labour market will take a sizeable hit.1 Although graduates appear to be faring better than the labour market as whole, it is understandably a worrying time for university students as they wonder how their career prospects will be impacted by the economic crisis that will follow the health crisis.

With businesses indicating that they'll be recruiting fewer graduates in response to the impact of the pandemic, graduates aspiring to transition into work this summer will face unprecedented challenges when looking for employment. So it comes as no surprise that 36% of finalists surveyed by Prospects indicated that they now plan to remain in higher education rather than start their careers.

This is a trend that we've seen before in times of crisis, with young people typically seeing higher education as the safer option during a recession. In fact, a 2009 survey conducted by the National Union of Students (NUS) yielded similar results, with nearly a third of respondents indicating that they were more likely to enter into postgraduate study immediately after graduation because of the 2008 financial crisis.2

Year ,Students in postgraduate study
2001,406905
2002,427455
2003,454190
2004,477495
2005,482155
2006,492755
2007,502965
2008,501480
2009,537160
2010,578915
2011,589070
2012,568490
2013,536715
2014,539440
2015,538175
2016,531235
2017,551595
2018,566555
2019,585730

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI)

Moreover, Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data revealed a marked increase in levels of postgraduate study following the 2008 crisis.3 Postgraduate numbers increased by 18% (87,590) between the years of 2007/08 and 2010/11. In contrast, the three years preceding the crisis saw an increase of just 4% (19,356) across the UK. And with the coming crisis threatening to cut much deeper, it is likely that we will see an even larger increase in the number of students enrolling onto postgraduate courses in years to come - with 29% reporting that they are looking for online courses when asked what they are doing as a result of the pandemic.

Why students turn to further study

There are numerous factors which can influence a student's choice to continue their studies in times of crisis – the most obvious being a lack of available opportunities. For instance, the Prospects survey found that 16% of final-year students had lost their jobs as a result of the UK's pandemic response. Of those, 50% indicated that they are now considering a postgraduate course. Similarly, of the 13% of finalists who reported that they've either had their job offer cancelled or deferred as a result of the ongoing pandemic, just over two fifths (43%) suggested that they are now considering a postgraduate course after graduating.

Interestingly, finalists who suggested this were more likely to admit that they are lacking motivation in their job search than the sample as a whole. While 53% of all respondents admit to this, more than two thirds (69%) of finalists who are considering a postgraduate course due to the currently precarious nature of the labour market indicated the same thing.

Furthermore, those who said this are hungry for information from institutions with the vast majority (93%) expressing curiosity about the way teaching will take place if social distancing is still in place when institutions reopen. There were also plenty who indicated that they would be interested in a virtual open day or webinar concerning the course that they are interested in.

A common theme is that students are increasingly seeking online engagement from tutors and careers services during lockdown - a desire that careers services quickly responded to. Two fifths of the finalists surveyed noted that they will be using social media to engage with institutions throughout the pandemic. Additionally, a third (32%) are planning on attending a virtual open day now that they cannot physically attend.

Although the career prospects of this summer's graduates appear to be bleak, as Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), points out, there is some kind of 'silver lining' to take from this surge in interest in postgraduate study - the possibility that the UK may come out at the end of the current crisis with a more highly skilled workforce.4

Notes

  1. Bank of England warns of sharpest recession on record, BBC, 2020.
  2. The recession and its effects on students, NUS, 2009.
  3. Who's studying in HE?, HESA, 2020.
  4. Covid-19 could be a curse for graduates but a boon for universities, Times Higher Education, 2020

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