UK master’s students’ satisfaction dipped after lockdown

Survey of taught postgraduates suggests many were unhappy with handling of move online 

November 19, 2020
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A significant minority of master’s students were unhappy with the way their university adapted to the spring Covid-19 lockdown in the UK, a major survey of postgraduates suggests.

Almost 2,500 students who referred to the lockdown in their responses were much less likely to be satisfied with the quality of their course, according to the annual Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey (PTES).

However, most of the 28,000 postgraduates who answered the survey during the lockdown did not mention the pandemic and there was evidence that some – including those already learning online – may have even seen a positive impact.

For the PTES 2020, around 41,000 responses were received between February and June, about 30,000 fewer than in 2019, but still likely to be more than one in 10 of those studying a taught postgraduate course in 2019-20. Overall, 79 per cent of postgraduates said they were satisfied with the quality of their course, compared with 82 per cent last year.

Satisfaction was down by up to six percentage points for those responding immediately after the spring lockdown started in March, when universities moved teaching online, although this figure recovered “relatively quickly” to be back to pre-lockdown levels by mid-May.

Of 19,500 students who provided additional comments for the survey during lockdown, 12 per cent specifically mentioned it as an issue, with the proportion of these postgraduates saying that they were satisfied with the quality of their course being just 67 per cent.

“This suggests that the impact of lockdown was not evenly spread, and that where lockdown did have an impact, this was negative and significant on the overall experience,” a report accompanying the survey results says.

Although the report stresses that students were often “understanding of the challenges faced by staff” in a number of areas, “there were institutions where the shift to online teaching was not perceived to be handled well”.

“Respondents were frustrated if online teaching was not provided and opportunities to discuss with peers were limited. Many respondents commented on having standard course materials only, that additional materials and teaching had not been provided, and some stated their experience fell well below expectations.”

The report says that a number of students had also mentioned how their experience had been affected by the strike action on pay and pensions that took place in the weeks before lockdown started.

“Some comments referred to the impact of both industrial action and lockdown as having a cumulative impact on their taught experience,” the report says.

Among those for whom lockdown seemed to have a particular effect were postgraduates already suffering from mental health issues and students from outside the European Union, who were less likely to agree that their course was well organised after the move online.

“The reasons for this are unclear from comments, but international students are likely to face increased challenges in being far from home and other support networks,” the report says.

However, the results of the survey also suggest that many students who were already studying for a master’s online may have benefited from the restrictions brought about by the pandemic.

“For taught postgraduates expecting a distance learning experience, comments indicated that the situation had improved the contact and experience of support for many,” it says.

Jason Leman, who oversaw the delivery and analysis of the survey for Advance HE, said that the lockdown “appears to have been more impactful on taught postgraduates” than on PhD students and undergraduates canvassed in separate surveys, something that was likely a result of them being on “one-year courses where lockdown represents a significant part of their experience”.

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