Taught postgraduate student satisfaction drops this year, major survey finds

Students who declared a disability were more likely to find learning in lockdown difficult, the survey suggests

A major survey of taught postgraduates (PGT) found that satisfaction dipped below 80% last year for the first time on record, amid widespread disruption caused by industrial action and Covid-induced lockdowns.

The Advance HE survey recorded its lowest satisfaction rate since it began in its present iteration in 2014. Satisfaction has averaged 82% since records began but dropped to 79% in 2020, during a period of unprecedented disruption.

Over 40,000 PGT students responded to the Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey (PTES) 2020, which was open between 3 February and 15 June: around 13,000 responded before lockdown commenced on March 16, and over 28,000 participated afterwards.

The data show that satisfaction declined sharply immediately after lockdown, by up to six percentage points, but recovered by June – support from teaching staff, the availability of resources and the running of courses were the aspects most acutely affected by the closure of campuses, figures suggest.

Lockdown appears to have been more impactful on taught postgraduates than on the research postgraduates… this is because many taught postgraduates are on one-year courses where lockdown represents a significant part of their experience
– Jason Leman, Advance HE

However, lockdown did appear to make workloads more manageable for students of all modes of study, ages, and qualifications. Non-EU international students, more so than domestic or EU students, were less satisfied with teaching during the lockdown.

Of the 32 institutions that gained responses before lockdown, 12 experienced strike action between February and March. Institutions affected by strike action had significantly more negative scores relative to their 2019 results for every area of course experience – and in contrast to institutions that did not experience strikes. Before March, over seven in 10 (72%) of students agreed they had sufficient contact time – but this figure fell to 65% in universities hit by industrial action.

One respondent commented: “Although I understand the reason for the strikes and fully support this, this greatly affected many face-to-face teaching experiences, but these were only made apparent when lecturers did not show up for timetabled classes.”

Advance HE’s analysis suggests disabled students were the most adversely affected by the lockdown – particularly those who declared a sensory, mental or learning disability. Disabled PGT students rated every aspect of their course worse than those without disabilities in the survey, and this divide worsened during the lockdown. There was a nearly 3% gap between how disabled and non-disabled students rated course organisation – which rose to 5.1% for students with a sensory disability.

Report author and Advance HE surveys executive Jason Leman said: “As well as reporting on the current year, the Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey plots a long-term view of the postgraduate taught experience across the UK and it’s good to see really positive trends over the past five years.”

“Lockdown appears to have been more impactful on taught postgraduates than on the research postgraduates surveyed in PRES [Postgraduate Research Experience Survey 2020] or undergraduates survey in UKES [UK Engagement Survey 2020] and seems likely that this is because many taught postgraduates are on one-year courses where lockdown represents a significant part of their experience,” he added.

“Despite the challenges for postgraduates in 2020, it is encouraging that institutions are driving positive change and this report will support continued enhancement by individual institutions as well as the sector as whole.”

Read more: ‘All PhD students failed’ by UKRI’s refusal to give extensions to those affected by Covid-19

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