It sometimes feels like the pandemic is over, but for taught postgraduate students surveyed between February and June this year, it was very much the driving issue. Around three-quarters of the nearly 70,000 taught postgraduates who responded to the 2021 Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey (PTES) were not receiving the teaching they expected.
These students, who had signed up for in-person courses, were receiving teaching ‘mostly or completely’ online. The impact was keenly felt in the loss of connection with peers and staff. As one student wrote, “my experience has been one of doing my degree alone.” This loss of connection was reflected in an 11 percent fall in agreement that there had been sufficient opportunity to discuss work with other students. There was also a significant downturn in agreement that contact time with staff had been sufficient. This disconnection had a broader impact on the learning experience of students, from the loss of chats with peers that would help them understand content, to the structure given by having lessons on-campus.
It shouldn’t therefore be a surprise that the taught postgraduates of 2021 were less satisfied with the overall quality of their course than for any year recorded by PTES so far. This drop in satisfaction inevitably had implications for the numbers who considered leaving their course, which significantly increased this year.
A positive experience for the majority
If the picture in 2021 was of a negative trend, there were many positives. Over three-quarters (78%) of taught postgraduates still agreed that the quality of their course had been at least satisfactory. Students spoke of having ‘support teams’ of fellow students over WhatsApp or Zoom, and tutors used break-out rooms and seminars to encourage engagement online. For taught postgraduates with family and work responsibilities, the opportunity to learn remotely could be a huge benefit. Rather than juggling on-campus study with caring and work responsibilities, these students were given the kind of flexibility that distance-learning students value so much. This reflects that students on distance-learning courses were no more connected to peers and staff than those in-person students studying remotely, but usually had very different expectations and needs around those connections.
As ever, the diversity of experience in the taught postgraduate cohort was evidenced. Whilst the shift to remote learning had gone well for some, it had frustrated and isolated others. The outcome was a mix of how staff facilitated connections, the engagement of students, and what the individual themselves needed and valued in their learning experience.
Health, wellbeing, and human connections
Another area where the diverse student experience was highlighted was around support for health and wellbeing. This area, newly measured in PTES 2021, varied greatly across the 88 institutions taking part in the survey. One key difference was for those students who had declared a disability. Of students overall, 12% felt that health and wellbeing support did not meet their needs. This increased to 20% of students who declared one disability, and 29% of those students who declared three or more disabilities. There was praise for the support on offer, but many students experienced frustrations and even prejudice. The short timescale for taught postgraduate study has an impact, with support needing to be timely and, once in place, accepted as a normal and necessary part of the learning experience for that student. The evidence pointed to how valued proactive support and outreach is, and how good practice benefits all students, not just those who have declared a need for additional support.
PTES 2021 shows how the learning experiences of students were shaped by simple human connections; from a disability adviser contacting a student just to check how they were doing, to a friendship forged in a Zoom break-out room, to a lecturer showing how problems could be looked at in a different way. Yet, the priority placed on these connections were not universal. For taught postgraduates trying to fit study around home and work commitments, perhaps the most vital aspect was administrative flexibility and understanding. A deadline being allowed to slip in the face of home-schooling or resources being made available that avoided a commute into campus eased the pressure on busy lives. PTES 2021 has measured the taught postgraduate experience in an exceptional year. However, as the pandemic hopefully eases, the value placed on connections and flexibility by this diverse cohort will remain, being both an opportunity and a challenge to the sector.
Insight event: The student voice: Findings from Advance HE's student experience surveys - Join us on 10 December as we share key findings on student mental health and wellbeing from the UK Engagement Survey (UKES), the Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey (PTES) and the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES). Find out more and book your place.
The student surveys from Advance HE have engaged with over 170,000 students over the last two years. Find out more about how your institution can get involved.