Taught postgrads speak their minds

HEA survey and student forum find supervision to be a sore point. Rebecca Attwood reports

October 29, 2009

Taught postgraduates are happy with the quality of teaching on their courses but are less impressed with the supervision, according to a national survey.

Nearly 14,500 students from 30 institutions in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland took part in the first Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey (PTES) by the Higher Education Academy (HEA).

In an echo of the National Student Survey (NSS), the study reveals that taught postgraduates are positive about teaching, learning and staff, with 84 per cent agreeing that their overall experience had met or exceeded expectations.

More than two thirds agreed that their supervisor had the skills and knowledge needed to adequately support their dissertation (67 per cent).

But just over half said they were available when needed (57 per cent), made a real effort to understand any difficulties they faced (57 per cent), provided helpful feedback on progress (57 per cent) or gave good guidance in topic selection and refinement (53 per cent). Less than half (48 per cent) agreed that their supervisor gave good guidance in literature searches.

This is much less positive than the ratings for supervision recorded by the HEA's parallel Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES). Research students' ratings for most aspects of their supervision were about 20 per cent higher.

The HEA's report suggests that this may be partially explained by the timing of the PTES questionnaire, which took place as many taught postgraduates were starting or working on their dissertations.

In another parallel with the NSS, taught postgraduates also gave relatively low ratings (57-58 per cent) to the quality and timeliness of the feedback they received from tutors.

Taught postgraduates' top motivation to take such courses was to improve their work prospects. Most (78 per cent) believed it had.

The issue of supervision and support for postgraduate students was also highlighted in the annual report of the National Student Forum (NSF) this week.

It describes a perception among students that support for postgraduate study is patchy, with one NSF member calling it a "lottery".

"While most of us are happy with our supervisors' skills and knowledge, some of us have struggled to secure sufficient contact time," the report says. Other complaints include the difficulty in ascertaining long-term career prospects, the lack of access to student loans and social isolation.

In this year's PRES survey, 84 per cent said their overall experience had met or exceeded expectations. However, just 49 per cent of postgraduate researchers said they felt integrated into their departmental community.

The HEA will now run the two surveys in alternate years.



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