Students aren’t prepared for UK master’s level, study finds

Staff say they are having to put in extra hours to bring master’s students’ skills up to scratch

August 13, 2018
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Storm ahead: UK programme directors find many students, regardless of native language, ‘lack preparedness for master’s level study’

Students are entering taught master’s courses in the UK without the requisite skills or the ability to work independently for that level of study, research has shown.

Research published in a paper in Teaching in Higher Education found “a gap between postgraduate taught (PGT) students’ readiness for study at this level, the QAA [Quality Assurance Agency] vision of master’s study, and institutional assumptions about student support required”.

For the study, researchers conducted an online survey of staff in charge of master’s programmes and received 382 responses from academics in 60 UK universities.

Gale Macleod, a senior lecturer in the Institute for Education, Community and Society at the University of Edinburgh and a co-author of the paper, told Times Higher Education that there was a “thriving market” for taught master’s in the UK, particularly among international students, but the research highlighted a number of problems that needed to be addressed.

All but six of the programme directors surveyed identified “common problems that hold PGTs back in their academic studies”, and the majority singled out a “lack of preparedness for master’s level study” as the main issue.

A number highlighted problems with the language ability of non-native English speakers on master’s courses, although Dr Macleod said that this was not a particular surprise because it was “a known problem” among the sector.

“PGTs are a way of institutions raising money, particularly with high international fees, because of the historic flexibility to set their own numbers and tap into that revenue. People commented that their university had lower language entrance requirements than they would like, which then resulted in them having to teach students whose English-language skills were not up to the job,” she said.

“However, what was interesting was the overall sense that students at master’s level, regardless of their native language, struggled with the expectations,” she continued. According to the researchers, many students were just not ready to work independently, said Dr Macleod.

“There is a disparity between what the QAA and universities envisage a student to be at the end of a PGT course and what they come in with. They need a lot of help to get there,” she said.

“Our survey found that staff are putting in a lot of extra hours to improve students’ skills, such as critical thinking and essay-writing, so that students are at the right level when they exit,” Dr Macleod added. “How do you support them on that journey, if when they come in they are not anywhere close to where they have to get to? What we found was lots of people putting on extra lessons or additional assessments.”

The paper says that although many staff see students as requiring high levels of support and contact hours, many institutions believe master’s students to be more independent than undergraduates and allocate resources, including staff, accordingly.

The authors recommend that universities focus on ensuring that entry requirements to master’s study are high enough and that they review what kinds of institutional practices – and resources – are required to get master’s students “from where they actually are at when they enter the programmes of study to where we aspire for them to be at the end of their journey”.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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