It is time for real and positive change in the PGT student experience

Elise Thornton is a Research and Insight Coordinator at Royal Holloway Students’ Union

Most students and elected representatives at higher education institutes are undergraduates – and PGT students routinely feel overlooked by their departments, university professional services, and students’ unions.

Before the pandemic, there was a strong consensus among this group that there was a real lack of academic and social community for PGT students while undertaking their degree.

The onset of lockdowns, remote learning, ongoing industrial action and rising living costs has had a significant impact on PGT students, yet many remain unable to claim bursaries, additional support, or other cost of living initiatives piloted by institutions and SUs.

The PGT student experience at Royal Holloway is an area we have wanted to better understand for quite some time, and to learn more about the ways the university supports its PGT community as well as where improvements should be made.

In order to do so we also had to look inwards – what were we offering to this diverse group of students and where were the gaps in current provision?

Project planning

As most PGT courses last one year for full-time students our plan had always been to track the PGT lifecycle in a single academic year through online surveys in term one, term three and the dissertation or major project write-up period in the summer months.

We also wanted the chance to speak with students in-person so we ran a focus group in term two.

The largest platform for student engagement was through surveys which ran at key points during the academic year and asked students about their experiences on things like motivations for study, induction, their satisfaction with teaching, learning, organisation, feedback, and assessment.

We also asked whether they felt part of a community at the institution more broadly as well as within their individual academic departments. One question we asked students across all three surveys was about their satisfaction with their overall experience of the course so far.

Different groups

Of course, the PGT student population is extremely diverse and is made up of students from many different nationalities, age groups and modes of study. The timeline for our Policy Inquiry ran from September 2022 to September 2023 and a large proportion of our survey respondents naturally came from September starters on a one-year course.

Additionally, we managed to capture data from part-time students at various stages in their degree as well as students who enrolled at Royal Holloway with a January start date for one or two years. We also looked at the intersection of PGT study with other communities like international, commuter, mature and part-time students.

Survey says

As of last year in the SU we changed how we share information with our students, with the aim to be more transparent about our projects throughout their development, rather than just the final product of a report – hence multiple surveys and updates.

We also wanted our updates to be easily understandable and able to be seen in bitesize chunks that could be shared via social media and the website so students did not have to read a full 40 page report.

in November 2022 we ran our first survey, which asked students about their experiences with term one, and one of the issues we were keen to learn about was what kind of academic and social community exists for PGTs at Royal Holloway.

72% of international students who participated in the survey and 83% of EU students indicated they live in university halls or the local area around Royal Holloway. Only 32% of home students stated they live in halls or close proximity to the University.

Royal Holloway’s main campus is situated in a quiet town outside Central London, and most of the student social scene is provided by our Students’ Union. 86% of respondents answered that they knew about our activities and services, and 70% stated they were interested in attending one of our daytime and evening events.

But what did the University offer PGT students? We asked students how much they agree with the statement, ‘I feel like I am part of an academic community within my department’. There was a huge difference in agreement depending on a student’s study status. 75% of full-time students agreed to an extent in comparison to 40% of part-time students.

The majority of comments which discussed their positive experiences highlighted ways PGTs felt connected to their peers and participated in student-led events rather than the department itself.

Round 2

We launched our second survey in April 2023, and built upon our work with the previous survey and our in-person focus group which ran in March 2023. The second survey focused primarily on teaching satisfaction, the UCU strikes, feedback, skills development, and students’ experiences with university and SU services.

A few questions from the previous survey were included to track progress and note any changes in student satisfaction since Term One. We also included some questions from the previous survey for January starters via a logic skip to capture elements of their term one experience to see how it compared with September starters. The results were shared in July on our website and our social media channels.

The ongoing UCU strikes have caused disruptions across the sector, and 67% of survey respondents from the September PGT cohort supported the UCU strikes. 56% felt their experience had been impacted by industrial action in comparison to 33% of January respondents.. Full-time September students additionally felt the impact more in comparison to part-time students.

There was a subsequent decrease in student agreement from our September students around whether they felt a part of an academic community. 72% of respondents agreed to an extent at the end of term one in comparison to 52% at the end of term three. We asked students about their experience with SU activities, and 47% of respondents who participated in volunteering activities or student groups agreed to an extent that it improved their PGT experience, highlighting there is work to be done in this area.

Round 3

We shared the results with students in the summer and used the blog post to launch our final survey which asked students about their experience with preparing and writing their dissertation or major project, their working relationship with their supervisor, their plans after completing the course and, finally, whether their PGT experience at Royal Holloway had met their expectations.

One of the largest takeaways from this final survey was learning the reasons why PGT students considered pausing or leaving their studies. 50% of part-time students who were part of a September cohort answered they had considered pausing or leaving in comparison to 22% of full-time students. In terms of nationality, 28% of home students answered yes and 3% preferred not to say while 12% of international students answered yes and 6% preferred not to say.

The most cited reasons for pausing or leaving the course were financial, with full-time students stating the split between working and studying was too demanding. It’s clear there is a real need for better financial support for PGT students.

Future planning

Our work continues even though many of the 2022-23 PGT student cohort at Royal Holloway have received their results. Over the summer the SU collated all the data from the previous year and drafted a potential list of recommendations that we believe will create long-lasting and positive change for current and prospective PGT students at Royal Holloway.

We have shared the recommendations on our website and social media channels and have asked students to provide feedback on this proposed list. A final list of recommendations will be sent to the University with a completed Student Voice Report which presents the findings of this Policy Inquiry in more detail in term two of this academic year.

The conversations we had with PGT students throughout our Policy Inquiry, and the insight we gained from our online engagement, revealed now is the time for more universities and students’ unions to focus their attention on the PGT student experience and give them a platform to project their collective voice.

It is time to implement real, positive change on their student experience.

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