A quarter of final-year undergraduate students are less likely to undertake postgraduate (PG) study than they were prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recent study.

Final-year students were surveyed to understand how the consequences of COVID-19 had changed students’ intentions for 2020/21 by Red Brick Research, a leading UK-based market research agency specialising in growth insights for the higher education sector.

Universities, who already face financial concerns over a potential spike in deferrals at undergraduate level – despite record numbers of undergraduate applications to university in 2020 – will be concerned by the potential drop in students undertaking postgraduate study in 2020/21.

woman in blue academic gown holding brown wooden board

Should they stay or should they go?

Out of the students who have applied – or are still intending to apply – for 2020/21 postgraduate courses, only half were sure they would still enrol on the course. A third would defer for a year or more, and 17% said they wouldn’t enrol altogether.

How come? One student surveyed said, “It’s more important to secure a job rather than be a student for another 2 years while I gain no experience,” while another stated that they would prefer to begin working “due to the coming state of the economy.”

This also ran into concerns about funding the course. One student shared: “My job security after graduation has been seriously threatened as I work in the service industry. My family is unemployed as well, so paying for postgraduate study is financially impossible right now.”

However, it isn’t all doom and gloom for universities’ postgraduate offerings; one sixth of those surveyed said they were actually more likely to undertake postgraduate study in 2020/21.

Ben Cooke, Research Director at Red Brick, predicts that more graduates will pursue education rather than dive headfirst into the job market.

“Traditionally, when we have a recession… it’s expected that more people will stay on to do postgraduate study, just because it seems to make sense in a difficult job market to delay your entry into it.”

Ben Cooke, Research Director at Red Brick Research

Additionally, concerns about employment could actually be used to universities’ advantage: two thirds of students surveyed agreed that career prospects had become more important as a result of COVID-19, while work placements and employer opportunities had grown in importance too. For those unsure whether to undertake postgraduate study, the consideration of whether the course would have ‘stable career prospects’ was the most important factor in their decision. Canny universities may want to incorporate more employment opportunities into their courses for 2020/21.

Concerns about the campus experience

Another factor in deferring, or even abandoning, postgraduate study was the type of teaching on offer. Universities have had to make the switch to virtual teaching at short notice as social distancing and lockdown measures were announced with little warning, causing accessibility issues for students with poor internet or technology access and students with disabilities such as hearing impairments.

woman wearing teal mask and gray turtle-neck shirt

After the initial survey of final-year students, Red Brick then surveyed first-year and intermediate students to establish how they felt their universities had coped with COVID-19 and what they expected from the next academic year. While several first-year students were positive about the teaching solutions implemented by universities, as many as 42% of students are seriously considering discontinuing their studies if there are few prospects of returning to campus, for example if remote teaching continues for the whole 2020/21 year.

Most students demonstrate a preference for returning to campus, with 74% viewing facilitated – albeit socially distanced – on-campus learning as an acceptable solution in the circumstances.

But the better students felt their universities had dealt with the situation, the more likely they were to be open-minded about the way in which they were taught. Zoe Revell, Associate Director at Red Brick, noted: There does seem to be some sort of correlation between those people who felt their university did well with the changes and the levels of acceptance for teaching solutions.

Wellbeing: the hidden factor?

a woman holds her hands over her face

Red Brick also examined the effect of lockdown on students’ wellbeing – and found that student wellbeing has been deeply affected, with nearly half of final year students and a third of first and second-year students rating their emotional and psychological wellbeing as ‘poor’. This could be having an impact on final year students’ decisions.

One recurrent theme among participants was loss, with students losing social life, university experience and memories, alongside committee positions, friends, or even romantic partners – all in the space of a few days.

But Zoe added that actually, for some students, going home had been a positive thing: For some students… [lockdown] has actually reduced their anxiety… This has to do with being around family, having that support net, and moving some of the pressures from the end of term as well.

November could be the key to improved enrolment

Small things could make a big difference for prospective postgraduate students. It seems likely that universities will delay the start of the new academic year – but in the event of a delay, prospective postgraduates may be more comfortable committing to study with a slight delay to November, rather than a longer delay until January 2021. However, non-EU students seem to prefer the opposite, with more than half saying a delay until January would make them more likely to start.

Universities may have to be flexible to cater to the differing needs of domestic and international students in order to give themselves the best chance of securing enrolments.

woman wearing backpack facing concrete building

They may also want to consider offering discounts on tuition fees for those with financial concerns. Of those students who were unsure whether they would still be undertaking postgraduate study in 2020/21, 35% said that a 10% discount on fees would encourage them to do the course in the next academic year, rising to more than half with a 25% discount on fees.

Were courses to be conducted entirely online for the year, only 1 in 10 prospective postgraduates would be happy to pay the full rate for a course.

There will be much for universities to consider for the 2020/21 academic year – but if they can find a balance between remote learning and campus experiences, between student safety and social opportunities, and between their own finances and the finances of their students, the dip in postgraduate enrolments may not be so dramatic.

View ‘Beyond Lockdown: Prospective Postgraduate Intentions for 2020/21’, the first webinar in the GSL Webinar series, now.