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Surveys insights into the 2021 STEM student experience

08 Jan 2021 | Maddie Pitkin In advance of the Advance HE STEM Conference 2021, Maddie Pitkin shares insights from STEM students responding to the UK Engagement Survey (UKES), Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey (PTES) and the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) in 2020.

Discipline information is collected via the surveys, enabling the analysis explored in this blog. For PRES, the REF disciplines can be mapped directly to the REF panels; STEM, Health and Social Care, Social Sciences and Arts and Humanities. For UKES and PTES, HECOS CAH1 has been mapped to the REF panels, however due to the different structure of REF from HECOS, this an approximate match only.

Due to the flexible nature of the fieldwork periods of UKES, PTES and PRES, there are some sample differences between those responding pre- and during- lockdown.

Despite, or perhaps as a result of the shift to remote teaching and learning due to lockdown, institutions have fostered a sense of community between STEM staff and students.

Given the disruption and adaptations caused by Covid-19, I don’t think it’s surprising that at undergraduate level, STEM undergraduates responding to the UK Engagement Survey (UKES) were less likely to spend time in taught sessions if they responded during lockdown - after 16 March - compared with those who responded earlier. However, the data suggests that there have been benefits of the move to online in terms of undergraduate STEM student engagement - those responding during lockdown were more likely to have asked questions in taught sessions or contributed to discussions about course material in other ways. Perhaps as a result, STEM students who responded to UKES during the first lockdown were more likely to say they had spent time contributing to a joint community of staff and students and that they had tried to better understand someone else's views by imagining how an issue looks from his or her perspective.

At postgraduate level, also, a positive learning from the lockdown is encouraging dialogue between institutions and PGTs – 3% more STEM PGTs who responded to the Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey (PTES) during the lockdown agreed they were involved in decisions about how their courses were run, compared with those who responded before. In comparison, those studying on non-STEM courses were slightly less likely to agree with this statement if they responded during lockdown.

Among postgraduate researchers studying in STEM disciplines, there were higher levels of agreement during the lockdown that PGRs had frequent opportunities to discuss their research with other researchers, and to feel the research community has stimulated their work.

Hopefully institutions can look to build upon these successes and continue to foster these interactions with STEM students.

At the same time, the move to online and more independent learning appears to have encouraged STEM students’ creativity.

Undergraduate STEM students who responded during the lockdown are more likely to have spent time formulating and exploring their own questions, problems or scenarios, and postgraduate taught STEM students were more likely to agree they had spent time being innovative and creative. At PGR level, while confidence to be innovative or creative was higher among both STEM and non-STEM researchers if they responded during the lockdown, the increase was greater among those studying in a STEM discipline. Perhaps a move to more online and independent study, which we might expect to be less common in STEM courses in more normal circumstances, has enabled STEM students to develop in this way.   

Although faced with a lockdown, data suggests STEM students were able to work on their employability skills.

At undergraduate level, STEM students were more likely to have spent time working on acquiring employability skills if they responded to UKES during the lockdown and among PGRs, those responding to PRES during the lockdown were more likely to have engaged with non-academic partners (in industry or elsewhere) and to have taken part in a placement or internship. They were also more likely than those responding prior to the lockdown to agree they had increasingly managed their own professional development during their programme.

Less positively, postgraduate taught students in STEM subjects responding to PTES during the lockdown were slightly less likely to say they had been encouraged to think about what skills they need to develop for their career than those responding before, however this dip was lower than that among-non-STEM students. A suggestion is that the often shorter nature of a postgraduate taught programme means that the pandemic and its implications have had a greater impact on the career planning opportunities available to PGTs.


Maddie Pitkin is Research and Insights Executive at Advance HE, working across PRES, PTES and UKES. Find out more about our student surveys

The Surveys & Insights Conference 2021: Adapting to challenging times, 28 April, will explore the key role surveys, measurement tools and qualitative research techniques have to play in capturing and understanding feedback. Find out more.

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