Thursday, 16 August 2018

Mastering support for students

One of the things I enjoy about my job is that I get to meet and work with people from across the UK higher education sector, and one of these great folk – Gale Macleod at the University of Edinburgh – recently pointed me to an interesting research paper she had co-authored. The paper – “Teaching at Master’s level: between a rock and a hard place” – looks at programme directors’ perceptions of the challenges faced by PGT students.

(The full reference is: Gale Macleod, Tina Barnes & Sharon R. A. Huttly (2018) Teaching at Master's level: between a rock and a hard place, Teaching in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2018.1491025; it’s at if you have access to the journal …)

The paper argues that there’s a mismatch between the formal expectations of postgraduate students (for instance, via the QAA’s level descriptors) and the reality as experienced by programme directors. The study is based upon a reasonably sample-sized survey; my more limited direct experience chimes well with the paper: “… there is a gap between the reality of PGT students’ readiness for study at Master’s level and institutional assumptions and the QAA vision”.

Since we're talking about Master's, here's a Margherita ...
The issues are about readiness for Masters’ study – the extent to which students are able to be independent and critical learners – and also about the impact of students’ lives on their ability to study: taught postgraduate students are more likely to have work or family responsibilities, meaning that their face real time pressures on their studies. And as well as this, universities often (and my experience definitely chimes with this) assume that taught postgraduate students are much more capable of managing their own learning. This creates a serious problem – learners are less capable (in the sense of being able to facilitate their own learning) than assumed; and institutions do not focus support on these same students.

So what conclusions do I draw from the paper?

This is a tricky problem. Taught postgraduate programmes are serious endeavours for UK universities. In 2016-17, income from taught postgraduate fees amounted to almost £1.25billion across the whole of the sector. That’s about 3.5% of all income, so it’s not by any means overwhelming; but it’s also a tidy sum in absolute terms and about half of the net institutional surplus across the sector. About 1 in every six students in UK universities are studying for a taught postgraduate qualification: again, not the largest group, but also not trivial.

So it’s a problem worth solving, but with these kinds of numbers it isn’t business-critical for most universities. The issues will also vary more sharply by programme: where a programme attracts many students and has higher fees, it is more likely that the university will put in place (at a programme or faculty level) resources to support students. (Some of the most impressive teaching and learning support takes place on MBA programmes …) Conversely, where a programme doesn’t attract many students the likelihood that the university will put in place any necessary support is low.

This is the nub of the problem. In my experience, universities often have a number of taught postgraduate programmes which are very marginal – low student numbers, low fees. They may play an important role in the academic life of a department or school, and provide a small but important pathway for research students. But in financial terms they are a cost. The challenge for universities is whether they should take any action, as the net cost of delivery is often small.

What would action look like? On the positive side, it is possible that a university which addressed student support for taught postgraduate would see an increase in student numbers, and therefore a reduction or elimination of the financial problem. But the reality is that many universities are operating in relatively fixed markets, and this won’t happen in the short term. More likely, there is a need to look at how the cost of a programme can be reduced: sharing modules, reducing options – this can create the space to provide better support for students. Whilst this can look like central managerialism whittling away at the freedom of a school or department to offer interesting programmes, if done well it can help to create a more vibrant departmental offer. Local academic leadership matters tremendously for this to work.

University professional services can play an important role in helping to address the problems identified in the paper. The accessibility of support services to students who are have time pressures is critical. For example, are librarians available online, or out of normal hours? How easy is it to learn how to use online resources such as VLE’s or library catalogues? Do inductions or student welcomes take account of the distinct needs of taught postgraduate students? These matters can often be improved without any – or much – resource, and can make a big difference.

Perhaps something which should be higher up to-do lists than it is at the moment?

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