On the up - more people are returning to postgraduate research

Over the past six years, the number of UK and European Union-domiciled students entering postgraduate research programmes has risen by 25 percent.

This rise is not just from more students going straight on to PhD study after an undergraduate or masters degree, but is driven by students who have taken a break before returning to higher education.

Returning to study

Around two-thirds of all students entering postgraduate research study in 2014-15 had taken a break of at least one year after completing their undergraduate or taught masters degree.

Of these ‘returners’, 40 per cent were aged 26 to 40, which implies that they had taken a substantial break in study, rather than just a few years.

This leads us to ask: What motivates them to leave work for full-time study? Are they ‘upskilling’, retraining or pursuing a new career? Is gaining work experience before postgraduate study helpful for career progression? Or are there now more opportunities available for postgraduate research (PGR) study?

Following the money

In the last six years, we have seen a rise in the proportion of students whose postgraduate research studies are funded by their institution. In 2008-09, 22 per cent of PGR students had institutional funding, compared with 28 per cent of entrants in 2014-15.

This rise was seen more in returners to study than in those going immediately into PGR study, meaning the increase in funding is not just from universities trying to retain good students, but is being driven by some other motive.

This reflects our research findings on the recruitment and selection of PGR students, which suggest that universities wish to increase their PGR student numbers and can attract highly qualified applicants.

The higher availability of institutional funding could be a driver in the increase in the number of students returning to undertake PGR study.

This is not just of benefit to the student. PGR students help institutions to build critical mass in research groups and on strategic themes, and to pursue ‘blue-skies’ projects.

Furthermore, PGR students are perceived to enhance a university’s reputation in research activity and exert a positive impact on research culture.

Looking forward

The increase in institutional funding suggests that the rise in PGR numbers reflects universities’ strategic investment to develop talent and high-level research skills.

The Government is also interested in increasing high-level skills and is introducing a suite of postgraduate loans. Masters loans will be available from the coming academic year, 2016-17, with doctoral loans to follow from 2018-19.

The introduction of doctoral loans is expected to generate further expansion in PGR student numbers, creating more opportunities for those who otherwise could not fund a research degree.

We watch with interest to see how the PGR student population will develop as the funding landscape for doctoral study changes.

See HEFCE’s full report on trends in transition to postgraduate study