Higher fees. Mounting debt. An uncertain economic outlook. We might think that the reasons for leaving higher education would be stacking up, and graduates would be keen to begin taking the first steps in their career paths.
Not so, according to early insights into current demand for postgraduate study. Responses from the 2015-16 Intentions After Graduation Survey (IAGS) show that the proportion of graduates who intend to go straight into postgraduate courses has increased for the first time in three years.
Students in this category have increased by 1.4 percentage points to 9.7 per cent compared to 2014-15. This is higher than the previous peak in 2013-14, which was the first year that the survey was carried out.
If these graduates do as they say, then it would mean an increase of around 34,000 students across the whole population.
Still, we need to be cautious. Previous comparison between intentions and actual progression rates found that only 56 per cent actually did as they intended.
It’s also particularly difficult to make predictions on this year’s cohort since they are the first to have access to the new master’s loan scheme. The new scheme may have a part to play in these increased ambitions. But we don’t know quite how aware of the loans these students were when they took the survey.
Intentions are broadly similar across social backgrounds.
8.8 per cent of graduates from the most disadvantaged areas say they intend to do a postgraduate course, compared to 9.3 per cent from the least disadvantaged areas.
This accords with previous surveys. But we have seen previously that even when intentions are similar, fewer students from disadvantaged backgrounds actually progress.
Intentions vary a little more between the ethnicity of students.
8.1 per cent and 14.3 per cent of Asian and Chinese students respectively say they will take their studies further immediately.
More than any other ethnic group, black students say that, at some time in the future, they will go onto study at postgraduate level (51.7 per cent). White students are the least likely (32.3 per cent).
Have higher fees made a difference?
A greater proportion of the graduates surveyed this year – 93 per cent – paid the higher cost of tuition introduced in 2012. This compares to 66 per cent of respondents in 2014-15, and just 4 per cent in 2013-14.
So it seems that higher fees have not discouraged graduates. But it remains to be seen whether they will affect actual progression. Large debts accumulated as an undergraduate may deter graduates for whom postgraduate study is a more marginal decision.
And yet the survey suggests otherwise. The students who said they were most discouraged by debt began their studies in 2010-11. They didn’t pay the higher tuition fees, but they entered higher education when student loans were at the peak of their public profile.
More significantly, students either side of the fee increase – those who started in 2011-12 and 2012-13 – have very similar intentions.
The survey shows that the cost of living and course fees are stronger deterrents than fear of debt. So overall we have no clear evidence at the moment to show that debt discourages potential postgraduates.
We’ll be publishing a deeper analysis of the 2015-16 survey data in the coming months. This will give a full comparison with previous years’ results and will include analysis of multiple student characteristics.
We will also compare graduates’ intentions with actual outcomes from the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education survey. We’ll use this to get a better understanding of where there are barriers to progression – particularly among the most under-represented groups which are still a concern.