Dear Vice-Chancellor or Principal
Guidance to institutions on providing information for prospective postgraduate taught students
1. This letter invites higher education providers to consider guidance on the provision of information to prospective postgraduate taught (PGT) students. The guidance is underpinned by research into the information needs of PGT students, and advises on what sort of information they are looking for, and how it could be delivered. It can be downloaded below.
2. The guidance forms part of HEFCE’s work to support postgraduate education at a time when PGT education in the UK is experiencing shifts in international and home demand. At this point, too, it is unclear what the impact of higher undergraduate tuition fees in England will be on the numbers continuing to postgraduate study.
3. The guidance also links to a wider programme of work on the provision of information for students which HEFCE and the other UK higher education funding bodies are leading in collaboration with the sector.
4. Many institutions already provide high-quality information and advice to prospective students: we know that there is already a body of existing good practice in the sector. We are inviting you to use this guidance to review and, where appropriate, improve your PGT information provision, by spring 2015.
5. The guidance will help higher education providers to demonstrate that they meet Part C of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education’s UK Quality Code, ‘Information about higher education provision’. Indicators 2 and 3 under ‘Information for prospective students’ (pages 6 to 8) are particularly relevant:
a. Higher education providers describe the process for application and admission to the programme of study.’
b. Higher education providers make available to prospective students information to help them select their programme with an understanding of the academic environment in which they will be studying and the support that will be made available to them.’
6. The four UK higher education funding bodies (HEFCE, the Scottish Funding Council, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales and the Department for Employment and Learning Northern Ireland) have been supporting improvements in information provision for prospective PGT students over the last five years. In England, the Government’s White Paper ‘Students at the heart of the system’ (June 2011), with its emphasis on the need for students to have access to high-quality information about courses and institutions, gave fresh impetus to this work.
7. A key focus has been the development of an evidence base for the information needs of prospective PGT students. The funding bodies have published three pieces of research in this area:
- International Graduate Insight Group (i-graduate) 2013 ‘Understanding the information needs of postgraduate taught students and how these can be met’.
- NatCen Social Research 2013 ‘The feasibility of conducting a national survey of postgraduate students’.
- The Careers Research and Advisory Centre (CRAC) and the University of Derby International Centre for Guidance Studies 2014 ‘Understanding how people choose to pursue taught postgraduate study’.
8. The research highlighted the fact that the range and diversity of PGT students means that their information needs are complex and not always easily met. It also found that:
- prospective PGT students primarily look for information on institutions’ own web-sites
- they prioritise information which answers the questions ‘Can I study?’ and ‘Do I want to study this here?’
- returners to higher education often experience more difficulty in finding the information they need than those who continue directly from undergraduate study.
These and other findings have informed the development of the guidance.
9. Following earlier work on the potential value of a National Student Survey for PGT students, the further research in this area (see paragraph 7b) concluded that a national student survey of postgraduate students would be unlikely to provide the information sought by prospective PGT students at this time.
Using the guidance
10. The guidance, and the research on which it is based, is intended to support continued improvement in the provision of information. We would encourage institutions to use it to identify and enhance areas of information for PGT students which may not be addressed by their current approach.
11. The guidance focuses on two key areas:
- Information to provide: The themes or types of information that prospective PGT students want, particularly those re-entering higher education after a period away from study.
- Information delivery: Aspects of the design and communication of information that may facilitate prospective students through their decision-making journeys.
12. During the research phase of this project we gathered examples of good practice in information provision for PGT prospective students. We are keen to continue to do so, and would welcome further examples and case studies from institutions. Please contact Pam Macpherson Barrett (contact details below) if you would be willing to volunteer examples, or would like more information.
13. We would urge those institutions that identify areas for enhancement on their web-sites or other communications channels to make any amendments by spring 2015. This will help to support the first cohort of students graduating under the higher fee regime who may be considering options for further study.
14. Spring 2015 will also see the launch of an online decision-making tool for prospective PGT students. Provisionally titled ‘PGT Choices’, and sponsored by the UK funding bodies, the tool will provide information pathways for UK, EU and international students, whether they are going straight on to PGT study or returning after a period away from education. It will highlight the sorts of questions students may wish to ask, and point them to where they may find the answers.
15. We will be inviting higher education providers to link to PGT Choices when it goes live. We will contact you prior to the launch with more information, and explain how you can do this, should you wish to.
16. As we develop PGT Choices over the coming months, we are keen to draw on the vast amount of expertise in postgraduate recruitment within the sector. We will be including practitioners within the group that takes the work forward, and (if there is sufficient interest) we will hold workshops to seek institutions’ views on how PGT Choices can most effectively link to other information sources and engage prospective PGT students.
Other work to support PGT education
17. As part of our wider programme of work on PGT education, HEFCE is helping to fund 20 pilot projects to test ways of stimulating progression into taught postgraduate education through the £25 million Postgraduate Support Scheme. The scheme will support more than 2,800 students and involves a range of activities including financial and pastoral support, mentoring and networking, curricula change, funded studentships, work placements and a variety of bursary and loan schemes. Most of the projects will be working with a range of partners, including other higher education institutions and employers. Learning from the pilots will inform the £50 million allocation the Government has announced for this purpose in 2015-16, and the review of postgraduate finance announced in last month’s Budget statement.
Professor Madeleine Atkins