Postgraduates’ struggles with workload raise ‘concern’ for HEA

Major survey looks at experiences of 72,000 UK postgraduates

January 7, 2016
Man at desk holding 'Help' sign

More than one-quarter of full-time postgraduates studying for a master’s and nearly half of those working towards certificates or diplomas do not believe that their workload is manageable, according to a major survey.

The Higher Education Academy’s latest Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey, which attracted responses from 72,200 students at UK universities, found that 72.2 per cent of full-time master’s students felt their workload was manageable.

A much lower proportion of full-time certificate and diploma students, 58.4 per cent, felt that they were able to keep up with what was expected of them.

“That nearly half do not think their workload is manageable is of concern, not least because of a possible impact on their depth of learning," says the HEA in the report.

Certificate and diploma students were significantly less likely than master’s students to agree that their course had improved their academic ability and their confidence about independent learning.

The variation between perceptions of workload is thought to be explained, in part at least, by the likelihood that students taking full-time certificates and diplomas are often required to undertake work placements alongside their studies.

For these postgraduates, organisation and management factors such as the coincidence of several submission deadlines were a more significant influence on satisfaction levels than they were for master’s students.

The proportion of all taught postgraduate students who said that they were satisfied with their course was unchanged from 2014, at 83 per cent. This remains slightly below the overall satisfaction figure in the undergraduate National Student Survey, which stands at 86 per cent.

Rosemary Deem, vice-principal (education) at Royal Holloway, University of London and chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education, said that the satisfaction and workload results indicated a need to consider whether courses are adequately funded – postgraduate fees are often cheaper than undergraduate fees – and study sufficiently flexible.

“People are worried about PhDs because they affect the research base, and people are worried about undergraduates because that’s where the funding is, and master’s courses are maybe stuck in the middle,” Professor Deem said. “I think there is a real danger that master’s degrees are getting squeezed between undergraduate and research students and people haven’t been looking at them in the same way.”

The HEA has also published the results of its latest Postgraduate Research Experience Survey, based on the responses of 53,348 research students, who gave an overall satisfaction score of 82 per cent, the same result as 2013.

Students carrying out research in subjects such as mathematical sciences, physical science and leisure and tourism tended to be most satisfied; those studying communication and media studies, social studies and creative arts and design were least satisfied.

Interestingly, the survey found that research students became progressively less likely to want to pursue a career in academia during the course of their degree. Among full-time first-year students, 47 per cent expressed a desire to stay in academia, but this fell to 43.6 per cent among third years.

The survey also found that male research students were more likely to submit a paper for publication in a journal or book during their course than females – 39 per cent compared with 33 per cent respectively.

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