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Ethnicity and the Postgraduate Student Experience Report

21 Jul 2020 | Maddie Pitkin Report author, Maddie Pitkin, Advance HE Research and Insights Executive, shares key take-outs from her newly-released report on Ethnicity and the Postgraduate Student Experience

The need for evidence

This new report investigates the data gathered by the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) and the Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey (PTES) in 2019, in order to understand how the postgraduate experience differs for students of different ethnic backgrounds, to develop the somewhat scarce body of evidence in this area.

While there is a large amount of evidence demonstrating that undergraduate academic experiences and outcomes for students from Black, Asian and Minority (BAME) ethnicity groups are significantly worse than those of white undergraduates there is considerably less evidence examining whether and how experiences differ among postgraduate students of different ethnic backgrounds.

Rather than looking only at the difference between White and BAME students’ satisfaction, I wanted to dig deeper to understand the differences in satisfaction among students of more specific ethnic backgrounds and what might be driving these differences, to help institutions understand which particular groups might be having a less than optimal postgraduate student experience. I’ve also taken a look into students’ motivations to study at postgraduate level, and whether they have considered leaving their course.

Considering other personal characteristics

As well as looking at the differences in overall satisfaction among students from different ethnicity groups, the PRES and PTES datasets enabled me to also consider ethnicity alongside other personal characteristics, such as age and whether the students were studying on a full or part time basis.

What strikes me in particular when examining students’ age alongside their ethnicity is that when considered all together, students from Black backgrounds reported relatively high levels of overall satisfaction due to the majority of Black students being aged 31 and above; but this consideration at the overall level masks the finding that younger Black students were actually some of the least satisfied PGR students.

While I have identified several cohorts of students whose satisfaction is lower than other, based on their ethnicity and other personal characteristics, a key take-out for me is that several of these groups have common areas of concern. Both younger black PGTs and PGTs studing on a face-to-face basis of Other ethnicity have concerns about assessment, for example. Guidance and support and help with future career planning are also areas of the student experience connected with lower satisfaction among more than one group. Suggested improvements in these areas may therefore help a range of students.

Defined by diversity

A particular challenge I encountered while conducting this analysis is that each of the groups (White, Black, Asian, Chinese, Mixed and Other) considered in this report are comprised of a range of different sub-groups, each of which may face particular issues. In particular, the Mixed and Other ethnicity groups are quite challenging to analyse as they are defined by diversity.

My report finds that at both PGT and PGR level, students of Other ethnicity are among the least satisfied groups overall. While there may appear to be a contradiction in examining a group of students who don’t fall into any of the other categories, I wanted to ensure that these students’ concerns were voiced in my report.

While I appreciate that it may be difficult for institutions to identify exactly which students who are members of this Other ethnicity category are most in need of support, my suggestions and recommendations are broad and should benefit all students, including and especially those who raised the issues they are intended to combat. I hope that bringing in other personal characteristics, as well as ethnic background, will help institutions identify those whose experience is most in need of improvement.

Measures for improvement

Analysing postgraduate students’ experiences alongside their ethnicity and other personal characteristics not only enables us to identify cohorts who are less satisfied than others and specific areas of the student experience which may be contributing to that dissatisfaction. The report also highlights measures institutions can take to improve these students’ experiences, many of which are suggested by the students themselves through the opportunity to leave open text comments.

The full report, Ethnicity and the Postgraduate Experience, is available for Advance HE members.  

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