Could the expansion of student numbers be harming the taught postgraduate experience?
Analysis of this year’s Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey (PTES), a survey of nearly 80,000 taught postgraduates across 91 institutions, sought to explore this question.
It found many courses that were thriving, and some that were doing less well. The rapid expansion of taught postgraduate provision has impacted upon the student experience, but this impact is not simple and includes some strong success stories.
The profile of expansion
From the 2015-16 academic year there has been a 44 percentage point increase in the number of taught postgraduates studying in the UK to 2020-21 (the latest figures available). Nearly half of that increase happened in the academic year 2020-21, bringing the total to nearly 600,000.
The expansion of the taught postgraduate population has been significantly driven by growth in students domiciled in the UK, but the recruitment of students from outside the EU has witnessed the fastest growth. Overseas students from outside the EU form an ever more significant part of the taught postgraduate population, up five percentage points in five years, to 37 per cent of the student population in 2020-21.
The largest proportion of non-EU students are from China, with 73,535 registered taught postgraduates in 2020-21, up from 44,615 five years before. This growth is dwarfed by that of students from India, up six fold from just 8,875 taught postgraduates in 2015-16 to 57,850 in 2020-21. There has also been a big increase in students from Nigeria, nearly doubling in the last five years to 13,170 students in 2020-21.
These three countries account for two-thirds of the non-EU taught postgraduates, and a quarter of all taught postgraduates studying in the UK.
Not all satisfaction is equal
The trajectories of reported student experience over the past eight years depends on where students come from and these differences are remarkable.
For students from China, the trend in the student experience since 2016 has been a somewhat bumpy ride. Chinese students typically give very positive feedback to student surveys, reflecting a combination of culture, expectations, and courses providing a good match to what they want. However, there was a significant dip in satisfaction in 2018, reflecting the industrial disputes of that year.
The dip in satisfaction across 2020 and 2021 reflected a combination of industrial disputes and the global pandemic. In 2022, this cohort returned to the levels of satisfaction last seen in 2017, with everything seemingly back to normal.
The story for students from India is intriguing. Levels of overall satisfaction with the quality of the course were not particularly positive until the pandemic and a year of huge expansion. The more that recruitment has expanded, the more positive this cohort has become, reaching 85.2 per cent satisfaction in 2022. Institutions that heavily recruited Indian students appear to have delivered an experience suiting these students well.
There are institutions where the satisfaction of Indian students is below students from China or the UK, however, the expansion of taught postgraduate provision for Indian students is largely a success story.
For UK taught postgraduates the story is slightly less positive. Riding over the bumps of the pandemic and industrial disputes, there is a picture of decline since 2016. Whilst overall satisfaction with course quality has recovered from a pandemic low, at 79.0 per cent it is still 3.7 percentage points below the level for 2016. The apparent correlation of this fall to the expansion of taught postgraduate study raises the question of whether this expansion is having a particular impact on UK domiciled students.
Examining the effect of expansion
To delve into expansion further, taught postgraduate satisfaction in PTES was compared across areas that had positive growth over the last three years. This analysis explored differences between areas with the highest and lowest growth rates, trends over time, and for UK domiciled students specifically, within and outside the disciplines responsible for most international expansion.
This exploratory analysis found no link between the expansion of taught postgraduate provision and satisfaction with course experience.
Exploring open comments in PTES 2022 for high growth areas evidenced some issues arguably typical to large courses. For example, one student in a high growth course stated “the class size is so big that engagement is discouraged”, whilst in another institution a student said “I find that with the expansion of the [course] to such a large class size, there is not enough capacity for one to one support.”
However, there were also comments from students on rapidly expanding courses stating “I was amazed by how much support I was given throughout the course!” and “the variety of sessions and how they’ve been taught has been brilliant”. Comments indicated that large courses potentially had advantages of resources, choice, external connections, and peer networks that smaller taught postgraduate courses might not have been able to sustain.
Expansion alongside enhancement
At the sector level there appears to be a broad correlation between expanding postgraduate taught provision and less positive experience of UK domiciled taught postgraduate students.
However, this was not a simple causal relationship. Expansion didn’t have uniform outcomes for students regardless of domicile and, as can be seen from the expansion of provision for students from India, the sector has successfully delivered expansion alongside positive experiences for many students.
PTES has previously evidenced what impacts on the student experience. Well-resourced teaching and support, combined with good organisation, make for happy taught postgraduates.
Getting these basics right might require investment and enhancement, but would help the sector deliver both expanding student numbers and an excellent taught postgraduate experience. The voices and reflections of taught postgraduates gathered by PTES will let the sector know whether the direction it is moving in is a successful one.