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PGT+BE Using behavioural economics (BE) to understand how students really make their taught postgraduate (PGT) decisions

PGT+BE Using behavioural economics (BE) to understand how students really make their taught postgraduate (PGT) decisions


We’re pleased to offer HE clients access to our new research syndicate, ‘PGT+BE’, which will provide institutions with a comprehensive understanding of how UK-based prospective students really make their taught postgraduate (PGT)decisions.

Our syndicated research study costs £3,250 for all three elements:
All elements of the study are available NOW (from October 2013)
Literature review
Marketing Toolkit
97 page PowerPoint report


PGT degrees lie outside of student number controls and offer universities an excellent opportunity for marginal growth in a highly competitive HE market. They also provide a fantastic opportunity for students to up-skill and improve their career opportunities. But in contrast to undergraduate degrees, there is relatively little insight available on PGT ‘buyer behaviour’.

YouthSight has been researching student decision making since 2004. Conscious of the lack of data on PGT decisions, we wanted to start with a ‘deep delve’ into PGT student choice. We wanted to understand both the rational and emotional aspects of what is a very complex decision.

Taught postgraduate degrees (PGT) provide students with a fantastic opportunity to improve their career prospects and learn more about a subject they love. From the perspective of universities, they offer the opportunity to increase revenues in what has become an exceptionally competitive (yet, at undergraduate level, still centrally managed) higher education market. Many universities are therefore very interested in either expanding or improving their PGT provision. But, in contrast to the undergraduate degree market, there is relatively little insight into PGT ‘buyer behaviour’.

We are therefore pleased to offer our clients the results of our new syndicated research project, ‘PTG+BE’, which gives institutions a detailed view of how UK-based prospective PGT students make their choices.

PGT decisions are complex, infrequent and often involve high personal and financial risks. This, at least superficially, encourages the adoption of a carefully considered and rational decision-making process. The first aim of this study has, therefore, been to elucidate this process via a traditional quantitative questionnaire. In other words, to ask sensible questions and to take respondents’ explanations of their choices at face value. The second aim of the study was to dig a bit deeper. Behavioural economics (BE) tells us that sometimes people can be influenced by cognitive biases, emotions and ‘rules of thumb’ that can lead them down unpredictable paths. Complex decisions like choosing a taught master’s degree are in no way immune to this. To get a bit closer to the psychological decision process we employed a series of qualitative interviews and BE-inspired tests to enhance our depth of insight.

This study acknowledges two further important features of the PGT market. First, the market is far more heterogeneous than the undergraduate market. So throughout the study we have included a range of analysis variables including ‘life stage’, PGT subject area of interest and type of university previously attended. Finally, with the huge recent increase in undergraduate tuition fees we recognise that the PGT ‘value proposition’ has changed considerably in recent years. Taught master’s degrees previously cost more than undergraduate degrees, yet they now frequently cost far less. So we have included a significant section on PGT ‘pricing’, namely fee expectations and measures of fee sensitivity.

As an overall objective, we have attempted to keep what is a very large study, as succinct as possible. By using lots of accessible charts and focusing on the data that shows interesting differences or unexpected results (rather than charting everything!), we have attempted to keep the narrative text to a minimum and share only the key points – and to let the data ‘do the talking’. We have tried to illustrate the ‘hard data’ with ‘word-of-mouth’ quotes from respondents and biographical case studies taken from our qualitative interviews. This report is accompanied by a full set of data tables and a file of verbatim responses to the open-ended questions included in the study.

YouthSight would like to extend thanks to Leigh Caldwell and Elina Halonen of The Irrational Agency, a specialist BE research consultancy, who undertook the literature review and worked with us on the depth interviews and BE sections of the questionnaire and report.

We would also like to offer our services to help clients who wish to dig even deeper into the data. Call us - we’ll be delighted to discuss how bespoke analysis might be able to help you.


Phase 1

The study will start with a detailed literature review that will identify which behavioural economic decision models are specifically relevant to the PG decision process, and ascertain the key goals and contextual factors which are known to influence prospective students. The study is therefore grounded in current research from the scientific literature.

Phase 2

Building on the literature review and with key models identified, we will move into a qualitative research phase comprising no fewer than ten depth interviews with participants from each of the key sample groups (see below). These interviews will test and enhance the pre-identified models to provide an in-depth and practical understanding of the type and style of PGT decision making.

Phase 3

The final phase will be a large scale (n=2,000) quantitative survey shaped by the literature review and depth interviews. As well as standard ‘rational’ questioning it will include sections inspired by behavioural economics, that will look at contextual factors most likely to influence willingness to pay, and a section of ‘Implicit Association Testing’ which measures assumptions and associations of prospective PGT students.

The quantitative survey will primarily use respondents from the OpinionPanel Community, the UK’s largest research panel of students and young professionals. Sample will be structured as follows:

Analysis groups:

A. Prospective students who would consider taught Masters study

Group 1
Current UG students
n = 600
Entering final/penultimate year at a UK HEI
Including: UK, EU and Overseas fee-paying students

Group 2
2013 Graduates
n = 600
Just completed a UG degree at a UK HEI
Including: UK,EU and Overseas fee-paying students

Group 3
Graduated at least one year ago
n = 600
Including UK graduates from the last:
1 - 5 years and 6 - 10 years

B. 2013 graduates who would not consider Masters study
n = 200

Contact John Newton to discuss this study or order your copy of the reports