Higher Education Funding Council England (HEFCE)
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Significant increase in students entering postgraduate research with prior PG qualifications

New HEFCE analysis shows that the proportion of students entering postgraduate (PG) research degrees with a prior PG qualification has increased from 33 per cent to 59 per cent over the last 12 years [Note 1]. 

The report, by CRAC/Vitae and iCeGS, finds that universities remain ambitious to develop and grow their postgraduate research activity, but recognise that this will be challenging due to the availability of funding and international competition.

Other findings include:

  1. Institutions expect reduced demand from UK students as the level of undergraduate loans increases and funding for PGR remains tight, but they still seek modest growth from the UK student base.
  2. For the most part, institutions aim to increase PGR student numbers through recruitment of international students. They recognise increasing competition from European universities as provision in English grows but are confident that the UK PGR is internationally competitive.
  3. Supply and demand for PGR programmes is largely driven by the availability of funding, particularly for UK PG research students. Institutions report little difficulty in attracting highly qualified applicants.
  4. Postgraduate research students are strategically important to institutions’ research capacity and are considered integral to university culture. However, the introduction of the Research Council doctoral training centre model is increasing the concentration of PG research provision.
  5. The research confirms that the path from undergraduate study to postgraduate research can be complex and diverse. Recruitment processes vary greatly between institutions, disciplines and funding programmes.
  6. Widening participation is an issue for institutions, but defining what this means at PG research level is difficult, as is translating it into institutional strategies and measures.

International comparisons in postgraduate education: quality, access and employment outcomes

HEFCE-commissioned research by University of Oxford academics has looked at quality, access and employment outcomes in taught and research postgraduate education in Australia, England, Germany, India, Norway, Scotland, Spain and the United States. The research finds that these countries face similar challenges, but are pursuing different responses which are tailored to their educational cultures and socio-economic conditions.

The challenges identified include:

  • those associated with an expansion of higher education and a shift from elite to mass systems
  • perceived tensions between maintaining quality and increasing access to postgraduate education for all students who are capable of undertaking it
  • an increase in competition between institutions globally for postgraduate students.

In mainland Europe, the Bologna Process is perceived to have transformed the postgraduate landscape and acted as an impetus for several countries to restructure their provision to bring it in line with Bologna expectations.

Funding for postgraduate education is a significant concern in all countries, though there are marked differences between national systems, with some providing free higher education and others requiring students to use grants, bursaries and loans to fund 100 per cent of their education.

Across the postgraduate systems explored here, there is currently little agreement about who the ‘beneficiaries’ of postgraduate education are. Some countries view the benefits as more individually focused, while others cite the broader societal benefits of the most highly educated citizens. This suggests a need for policy development that balances the individual and wider societal benefits of postgraduate education.

Chris Millward, HEFCE Director (Policy), said:

‘Since the reforms to undergraduate education in 2012, HEFCE has been at the forefront of efforts to highlight the centrality of postgraduate education to a successful higher education sector, to improve understanding of its characteristics, and to develop effective responses to its most pressing challenges.

‘These reports provide further insight into the situation of postgraduate education in England, enabling us to understand the routes students take through to postgraduate research and institutions’ plans for the future, and how our postgraduate system compares with those in other countries.

‘Postgraduate education in England is recognised as a success throughout the world, but we need to continue to invest to sustain this position. A key priority identified in these reports is taught postgraduate education, which appears increasingly to be a route into research and is a central aspect of the landscape in other countries. This provides impetus for the work we are supporting through the Postgraduate Support Scheme, which is developing real solutions to the barriers to progression at this level.’


  1. The Vitae Researcher Development International Conference brings together those with a strategic and practical role in developing researchers. Vitae is co-funded by HEFCE and the other UK funding bodies, and by Research Councils UK.
  2. HEFCE published two reports today:
Channel website: https://www.icaew.com

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