PRESent and accounted for

The Postgraduate Research Experience Survey is out and while overall satisfaction has risen there are important caveats in the data

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

The experiences of postgraduate researchers often do not get the attention they deserve. We can often become stuck in unending debates about whether PGRs are actually staff or students or learners or researchers or none of these things or all of these things, all the while forgetting that PGRs are people who want to enjoy their time at university, find communities, and feel like their concerns, whether relating to learning or their working conditions, are taken seriously.

PRES has been running since 2007. It is delivered by Advance HE and it is the largest annual survey of the postgraduate research experience. Not every institution takes part in PRES so it is necessary to be cautious when drawing comparisons to surveys like the NSS which use different methodologies and incentives. However, the PRES receives generally good coverage and the provision of comparator information to universities can be valuable in understanding how institutions can strengthen the PGR experience.

In total PRES asks PGR students about their experience across nine areas. These are

  • Supervision
  • Resources
  • Research culture
  • Progress and assessment
  • Responsibilities
  • Support
  • Research skills
  • Covid-19 support
  • Professional development

There is also an additional question about the overall experience including an overall satisfaction question (take note NSS). In total 62 institutions took part in the 2022 PRES accounting for close to 14,000 PGR students. This is the second lowest number of respondents and participants in PRES since 2011 but this is likely indicative of the move to an annual survey from its usual biannual format.

Overall PGR satisfaction is reported at 80 per cent. This has arrested a slight fall in satisfaction in previous years. The report makes the case that this recovery is in contrast to NSS where there is still a pandemic unhappiness hangover but we should be cautious in comparisons given the differing methodologies and samples. PGRs with a largely face-to-face or hybrid learning experience are generally happier than PGRs who have a mainly online experience. Overall, online cohorts have a lower satisfaction rate and this continues to fall.

PGRs with a declared disability have significantly lower and declining levels of satisfaction. The factors cited are feeling their feedback is not listened to, access to appropriate workplaces, and health and well-being support. This is particularly concerning as satisfaction is increasing across the total sample. Satisfaction rates amongst non-UK nationals have increased in 2022 while satisfaction for UK-domiciled PGRs has fallen.

Elsewhere in the report participants were particularly pleased with feedback from their supervisors and the skills they had developed during study but dissatisfied with how their institution values and responds to feedback from research degree students. PGRs are feeling better about how their institution has adapted to the changes wrought by COVID-19 in 2022 than they did in 2021, and there has been little change in the proportion of PGRs who have considered leaving their studies.

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