UK master’s students less satisfied after rapid sector expansion

Survey finds strong recovery in overall satisfaction with courses masks unease among some students about impact of big global recruitment drives

November 30, 2022
Hot air balloon expanding while being inflated to illustrate UK master’s students less satisfied after rapid sector expansion
Source: Alamy

High levels of satisfaction among taught postgraduate students from overseas have helped the UK sector’s reputation rebound post-pandemic but may be masking concerns among their British peers about the impact of rapid expansion and long-running industrial disputes.

That’s according to the latest Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey run by Advance HE, which finds that overall more than eight in 10 PGT students say they are satisfied with their course, a return to pre-pandemic levels.

Students are also much more positive about areas of their university experience, such as teaching and access to resources, that saw dramatic falls in satisfaction levels in 2021, primarily because of Covid restrictions.

But these headline figures may be covering up less positive views among certain groups of students, according to the report’s author, Jason Leman.

“To see things kind of getting back to normal is reassuring. But having said that, it is a complicated picture underneath this,” Mr Leman told Times Higher Education.

Those studying at institutions that were significantly affected by industrial action taken by members of the University and College Union over pay, working conditions and pensions were much more likely to report dissatisfaction with contact hours, the report finds.

A fifth (20 per cent) of those at these institutions disagree that contact time is sufficient, while 63 per cent say it is, more than 10 per cent below the sector average.

Mr Leman said this figure had generally remained low throughout the dispute, which began in 2018, demonstrating the continuing impact even in periods where strikes were less common.

“Whether it is because things are not all OK within those institutions and the industrial dispute is just a sign of that, or whether it is the impact of the strikes themselves, we can’t say. But we can see it is something that is carrying on and generally impacting on the overall student experience,” said Mr Leman, a surveys executive at Advance HE.

The survey reflects big increases in the taught postgraduate student population in the UK, which reached 600,000 in the academic year 2020-21. The proportion of the 80,000 respondents who are from Asia rose from 25.3 per cent in 2021 to 33.6 per cent in 2022.

This group was the only one feeling more positive than they were in 2016, while the overall satisfaction of UK taught postgraduates has dropped 3.7 percentage points in that period, with students less likely to be positive about their course’s engagement, organisation and teaching.

Mr Leman said it was only the positivity of students from China and India that kept overall student satisfaction levels at the same level.

“To a certain extent, that is a real positive; it means UK higher education is delivering for them,” he said. “It seems to be meeting the needs and expectations of UK students less well. Why that is, is not clear – is it just a hangover from the pandemic and impact of industrial disputes or is it that the sector isn’t coping so well with some of the expansion?”

Comments in the survey highlighted that expanding courses may be posing issues at some universities, with one respondent saying, “The class size is so big that engagement is discouraged.”

The report says while there was “apparent correlation” between expanding postgraduate taught provision and a declining quality of the student experience, the mass of other factors that may affect student satisfaction made establishing a causal relationship between the two difficult.

tom.williams@timeshighereducation.com

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