The most popular postgraduate courses in Australia revealed

University courses in health-aligned subjects were again among the most popular choices of postgraduate students this year, according to a university and government data. But cost-of-living pressures and a post-pandemic desire for better work/life balance appear to be biting, with enrolments for some areas of study well down on their pre-COVID-19 peaks.

According to the latest Universities Admissions Centre data for NSW and the ACT, which includes the postgraduate course preferences of about 6000 applicants, the top two 2024 choices were master’s degree courses in clinical psychology – at Charles Sturt and Macquarie universities, replicating last year’s top two.

Three of this year’s top 10 postgraduate choices were in the field of psychology. Six of the top 10were broadly health oriented. In 2022, by way of contrast, the UAC data found the top two course choices were legal degrees.

Meanwhile, data collected by the Department of Education on the postgraduate subject choices of about 200,000 students between 2018 and 2022 shows an increasing interest in psychology, which is included in the behavioural science category where preferences jumped from 4803 students in 2018 to 6912 (2022).

Interest in post-grad nursing courses grew too, from 8884 postgraduate students in 2018 to 13,678 in 2022(the latest year available), possibly pushed by the pandemic.

Numbers opting for postgraduate accounting, however, fell from 14,738 in 2018 to 6459 in 2022; postgraduate engineering and related studies numbers fell too, from 4066 in 2018 to 2164 in 2022.

Fast forward to 2024, and cost-of-living pressures and shorter career cycles have had an impact across the tertiary education sector, pushing universities to continue to refine the shape and delivery of their postgraduate programs to attract candidates.

Postgraduate enrolments have not bounced back from the pandemic as strongly as those for undergraduate enrolments, says University of Technology deputy vice-chancellor Professor Kylie Readman, citing pressures of cost of living, increased awareness of the importance of balancing work and lifestyle, and shorter career cycles.

Shrinking numbers of postgraduate Commonwealth-supported grants and the increasing economic squeeze have driven more students to carefully weigh the value and cost of any given university course.

“Postgraduate education is a rapidly changing field,” Readman says. “Its nature and form and mode are changing fast and value for money really matters. A course has to result in a career improvement.”

The largest postgraduate fields of study at UTS are health, business, education and IT, reflecting a nationwide skew to practical and career-boosting postgraduate qualifications – particularly in shorter courses such as graduate certificates and graduate diplomas.

This growing appetite for short and stackable courses is changing the nature of postgraduate education in Australia. Students can opt to study for a graduate diploma or a graduate certificate qualification, knowing the qualification can be added to other short course qualifications and eventually form the basis of a higher degree.

“That’s really important for students now,” Readman says. “They like to know it’s possible they can translate, should they want to.”

Employer-driven, short-form credentials are another important development in postgraduate education, she adds, with courses co-designed by employers and academic experts for as few as 300 students who learn the required skills and also earn an academic credit.

Sixty per cent of postgraduate students in Australia now study online, an option which suits an older and often working cohort of students. Ryan O’Hare, CEO of Keypath, an organisation which assists universities – including 10 in Australia – to better understand the postgraduate market, says online postgraduate courses have been the dominant option for five years, a trend that began pre-COVID.

Postgraduate students are typically 25 to 45 years old, working full-time or part-time, and want to “upskill, reskill, change careers and stay relevant”, O’Hare says, adding that more than half of all postgraduate enrolments are in the fields of health, and society and culture, followed by management and commerce. Course flexibility is key and high-quality on-line tuition essential.

The ever-popular master of business administration (MBA) degree has been one of the most sought-after post-graduate courses across many universities over the past two years, he adds, followed by courses relating to a helping profession, such as psychology, counselling, public health, mental health, teaching and social work.

Courses in information technology, such as data science, fintech, cybersecurity and analytics boomed during the COVID years, O’Hare says, but demand has fallen away post-pandemic as government subsidies were cut back.

Victoria University (VU) Online’s dean and chief academic officer Professor Chris Walsh says almost all VU postgraduate online students have full-time jobs and family responsibilities, so maximum online flexibility is essential to allow them to manage their schedules. The university offers most masters’ degrees in 12 units, which means a student who can manage six units a year can complete a master’s degree in two years. Four-unit graduate certificates take about eight months.

In accordance with sector-wide trends, mental health courses have boomed at VU.

“During COVID, we saw there was a lot of interest in mental health,” Walsh says. “People were isolated, without the same access to services. So, we decided to start a series of mental health courses at the postgraduate level.”

With demand boosted by the Victorian government’s decision to post a mental health worker in every school, these new courses – mental health, mental health nursing, and child and adolescent mental health – are now VU’s three most popular postgraduate options.

Walsh says postgraduate courses must be rigorously tailored to meet demand, and the university considers various elements in terms of launching new or substantially updated postgraduate courses. These include industry trends in terms of available jobs, competitor analysis, student demand and employer demand.

“If you know employers are looking for students with these degrees,” he says, “and it’s a trend over time, that’s probably where we need to focus on creating a new course.”

Sydney Morning Herald