The value of evidence-based insights in postgraduate taught education

Political uncertainty and growing domestic enrolments mean a quality postgraduate experience is more important than ever, argue Jason Leman and Jonathan Neves, who also discuss the results of Advance HE’s postgraduate taught experience survey 

November 7, 2018

With higher education policy now firmly focused on the student experience and teaching quality, surveys and performance measures in these areas have inevitably proliferated.

Universities and their senior managers, academics, professional staff and students invest significant amounts of time and effort in engaging with these exercises. The hope is that they will help to amplify the student voice and garner information that leads to improvements benefitting students, institutions and staff. 

Evidence of such improvements, as well as trends revealing areas in need of attention, can only really be found in research that has been conducted across the sector over a number of years. The value of studies that provide year-on-year and long-term comparisons becomes greater still where they have become embedded into institutional processes for enhancement.

A case in point is the Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey (PTES), which ran in 2018 for its 10th consecutive year, achieving its highest ever response, with more than 100 institutions from across the UK gathering information from 85,880 students. 

Our report on the findings is based not only on this, but has been informed by analysis of nearly 400,000 responses to PTES since its redesign in 2014.

There has never been a more important time for UK universities to pay greater attention to the quality of their taught postgraduate provision and the experience, needs and expectations of their PGT students. 

With almost half of young people in England now entering higher education, a growing number of graduates are seeking to stand out from the crowd in the labour market by taking the next step up on the qualifications ladder. 

First-year enrolments of UK PGT students in 2016-17 rose 14 per cent, HESA data shows. But since 2014-15 there has been a decline in non-European Union overseas student intakes across all years, which is a concern given the importance of international enrolments to the survival of many taught postgraduate programmes, especially as Brexit looms.

The results of this year’s PTES provide some fresh insights that will help individual institutions and the sector as a whole to respond to the challenges and opportunities facing this vital area of provision.

Overall satisfaction among PGT students remains very high, with just one in 10 students dissatisfied with their experience, despite a dip in satisfaction levels this academic year, which could partly be because of the UCU strike action over pension arrangements. 

The high satisfaction is largely driven by very positive perceptions of teaching delivery. For example, some 89 per cent of students agree that staff are enthusiastic about what they teach. But the survey also pinpoints aspects in need of improvement, such as the finding that one in six students felt they did not have sufficient contact time with staff to support their learning. A significant number of students also had relatively negative perceptions of course organisation and workload. 

The 2018 responses are interesting in themselves, but they become even more illuminating when seen as part of an analysis of trends since 2014. For example, one of the measures with the lowest satisfaction scores – the proportion of students agreeing that they feel encouraged to be involved in decisions about how their course is run (just 63 per cent agreed in 2018) – has actually seen significant improvement since 2014 when it was identified in the PTES as an area in need of enhancement. 

It is also encouraging to see year-on-year advances in other lower scoring areas such as feedback on academic work and awareness among students of how to access support services. 

The analysis also highlights some negative trends that clearly need to be addressed, particularly as some of them, such as course organisation and feeling better prepared for a future career, appear central to the student experience. Perhaps as a result, overall satisfaction with the quality of a course has also shown a slight decline since 2015.

New this year in PTES is a greater focus on the perceptions and experiences of different ethnic groups among UK students. This has been a neglected area in the past, in part because robust exploration of ethnicity within UK students requires a very large sample, which this year has been done through analysis of a multi-year dataset spanning 400,000 responses. 

The results highlight the challenges that institutions face in meeting the needs of students from particular backgrounds, including those of Asian or mixed ethnicity and those identifying as Gypsy or Traveller. 

Also for the first time in 2018, analysis of the findings has revealed a surprisingly strong relationship between motivational factors behind student choices of where and what to study and levels of satisfaction. 

It shows that the more factors a student recognises as having motivated their choice of study and institution, the more positive they are. On the other hand, students with perhaps only one factor motivating them may be more likely to discontinue their studies – a point worth noting in light of another finding, that more than a fifth (22 per cent) of students taking part in the survey said that they had considered leaving their course. 

The type of motivation matters too. Students motivated by academic interest are most influenced by institutional reputation, while those motivated to secure a specific job are likely to care about a university’s location. 

The breadth and depth of the PTES research is such that we have touched on only some of the headlines here. The findings inform enhancement processes and ensure that the student voice is heard and taken fully into account – a fact that should help satisfy policymakers as well as students and their institutions.

We look forward to running the PTES again in Spring 2019. Find out more here.

Jason Leman is surveys executive and Jonathan Neves is head of business intelligence and surveys at Advance HE.

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