Who goes on to postgraduate study?

Around the country, new graduates are deciding on their next career steps. For some this will be a return to education in the autumn to study for a postgraduate degree. For others it will mean starting full-time work, but that need not mean their university experience is over.

The HEFCE publication ‘Transitions into Postgraduate Study’ looks at the rates at which undergraduates progress into postgraduate study, and for the first time we consider how this is affected by breaks in study.

About one in eight graduates typically start postgraduate courses immediately after finishing their undergraduate degree. However, large numbers return to university after a break in study. For those graduating in 2002-03, the proportion going into postgraduate study (the transition rate) was 32 per cent after ten years.

Similar trends can be seen for graduates from all years between 2002-03 and 2013-14, and surprisingly the rates are not greatly affected by wider economic circumstances.

Those graduating when the UK economy was in recession in 2008-09 were most likely to immediately start postgraduate courses, but five years after graduating their transition rate is comparable to that of graduates from 2002-03. This suggests that the recession simply moved forward entry into postgraduate study.

Transition rates vary across groups

Of course, the rates at which different groups of graduates move into postgraduate study vary. For example, male graduates are more likely to enter postgraduate courses than female graduates, although the gap narrows over time as women are more likely to go back after a break.

Clear differences are also seen by ethnicity. Black and minority ethnic (BME) graduates are more likely than white graduates to go into taught masters both immediately after graduating and after a break.  However, a greater proportion of white than BME graduates start research courses, which may have implications for the diversity of academic staff in future.

Some of the largest differences are between students who come from low and high participation (POLAR) areas. Graduates from disadvantaged areas are least likely to go on to taught masters.

Of graduates in 2009-10, 8.2 per cent of those from the highest participation neighbourhoods immediately entered taught masters, but this was only 6.0 per cent for those from the lowest participation neighbourhoods.

Similar findings have been seen in earlier studies, but our latest analysis shows that the gap between these groups worsens over time. For graduates in 2009-10, the difference in the transition rates to taught masters grows from 2.2 percentage points in the year immediately after graduation to 4.0 percentage points after five years.

Why does it matter?

The different rates of transition into postgraduate study are worrying as postgraduate qualifications seem to be increasingly important to access top jobs. The latest Graduate Labour Market Statistics show that 73.5 per cent of young postgraduates (those aged 21 to 30 years) are in high-skilled employment compared to 55.8 per cent of young graduates. The median salary for a young postgraduate is £28,000, but for a young graduate this is £24,000.

The cause of the differences in transition rates across levels of disadvantage is not known for sure, but it has been argued that it is due to financial circumstances as disadvantaged students are most likely to say that the cost of living and course fees are barriers to postgraduate study.  If this is the case, then the introduction of the new Postgraduate Loans system may help to address the issue.

The loans will be available for the first time this year and HEFCE are currently consulting on proposals to complement the loan scheme by providing supplements for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Interested parties have until Friday 22 July to respond.