Postgraduate satisfaction well below national average

By Sam Lake

A survey of Durham postgraduate students suggests that those considered UK-based are significantly less satisfied with their experience than both international Durham students and UK students attending other British universities.

The Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey (PTES), carried out by Advance HE, measures student satisfaction in key areas such as teaching, assessment, and resource provision. The survey was suspended for 2020 in light of the pandemic but resumed last year.

Relative to its rivals Durham has continued to improve on its overall 2018 score, moving from the third quartile into the second quartile nationally.

However, despite scoring relatively highly on overall satisfaction compared to other UK universities, particularly regarding on-campus resource provision – in which Durham achieved 77% satisfaction compared to a sector-wide average of 66%.

However, when the experience of UK-domiciled students – that is, those who treat the UK as their permanent home – is separated, the University finds itself in the bottom quartile in every area surveyed barring dissertations, in which it is still below average.

Singled out as an area of particular weakness is Durham’s provision of assessment and feedback. Satisfaction with assessment averages out at 61% – 14% below the sector average. Long waits for feedback and its lack of depth are commonly cited as reasons for dissatisfaction in students’ comments.

There is significant variation between subjects, however: computer science, for example, has consistently scored strongly, whilst politics regularly finds itself scoring towards the bottom end.

Furthermore, of the respondents to the survey, only 250 of the 802 were UK-domiciled students. The response rate amongst international students was much higher, at 552, despite international students making up just under half of the postgraduate taught student body, and about 44% of the total when those on research courses are included.

In addition to this, response rates amongst Arts and Humanities subjects are consistently low. Respondents are also drawn exclusively from postgraduate taught students, rather than those on research-oriented courses.

Declan Merrington, Durham Student Union’s Postgraduate Academic Officer, has spoken to Palatinate about the report. Although critical of the PTES’s flaws, chiefly its “very low response rate”, he had this to say on its findings:

“It is a complicated affair: the difference between UK and international domiciled students’ experience in Postgraduate Education is stark.” He gives the University credit for their effort to engage international students as “the cohort that the University is currently targeting,” and invites postgraduates of all backgrounds to access SU support services, “especially the advice centre”.

“The difference between UK and international domiciled students’ experience in postgraduate education is stark”

Declan Merrington

When asked for his own impression of the postgraduate student experience, Merrington was keen to draw attention to the fact that “there is a lot of difference” between individual students based on a variety of factors, amongst them “international status, … whether the student went to Durham as an undergraduate or not”, and whether a student is on a taught or research course.

He went on to highlight the mixed impact of Covid-19. Merrington commends the improvements seen in areas like resource provision during the pandemic – relative to the rest of the country – but acknowledges that dissatisfaction broadly seems to line up with the NSS (National Student Survey) especially with regards to feedback”.

On feedback, Merrington feels “that essay feedback is the first thing to suffer when staff are in the position where they enter action short of a strike”. The ongoing UCU dispute has been national, however, and so cannot fully explain Durham’s poor performance relative to the rest of the country.

Although he worries that the PTES might miss problems specific to postgraduate research students, Merrington believes that feedback is an area that can be improved upon across the board. He would also like to see “a re-evaluation of the college system and how it applies to postgraduate experiences”.

In the Senate report on the PTES, the University set out their next steps: “We remain dedicated to providing a sector-leading education to all our students. As in previous years, departments will be provided with their subject-level results and free-text comments. (…) These will be supplemented by department-specific analysis highlighting strengths and weaknesses,” in order to “complement work related to NSS, where similar patterns were identified”.

They also pledge to “undertake further investigation of the differential responses of UK and international domiciled students”.

When asked, the University declined to but pointed out their aforementioned next steps and their proposal in the Senate report to undertake further investigation. They also highlighted the fact that in spite of the pandemic, the University scored higher last year in a number of areas than in 2018 and that “the paper was tabled only last month and this work is ongoing”.

Image: Lily Lake

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