What does excellence mean in postgraduate education?

Liverpool: lively, modern city and former European Capital of Culture with marvellous architecture and diverse heritage – from the maritime museum to the Tate gallery, from Albert Dock to the Beatles Story.

I walked across the city to the Town Hall which, with its grand décor and historical artefacts, was the venue for the UK Council for Graduate Education annual conference and two days of discussion about achieving excellence in postgraduate education.

Measuring excellence 

The first keynote speaker, Paul Ashwin (Lancaster University), reminded us that students come to higher education for knowledge, and that teaching is a local activity. Contextual differences between courses, cohorts and institutions make it difficult to design a fair accounting of teaching practice that can be applied across the sector.

Initially, the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) won’t look at postgraduate education, but the main aspects for assessing excellence at undergraduate level will be: teaching quality, learning environment, student outcomes, and learning gain. The consultation on TEF Year Two indicates that the assessment will be based on a set of core metrics.

The Metric Tide report highlighted how using the ‘wrong’ metrics can create perverse incentives. Quantitative indicators can be gamed or lead to unintended consequences. So, the intention to identify good practice must be balanced against any potential distorting effects of pursuing excellence.

What might this mean in terms of defining and measuring excellence in postgraduate teaching and supervision in the future? What does ‘excellence’ look like at this level? And how can we measure it meaningfully across the broad range of programmes and learning environments?

Hazel Partington’s (UCLAN) presentation described postgraduate study as a transformative experience, through which students’ perspectives are altered by a process of critical reflection that defines their worlds and their work in new ways.

It left me wondering if excellent teaching is that which takes students beyond their intended learning outcomes and pre-course expectations? And, if so, does this place the definition and measurement of teaching excellence within the student experience?

Quality supervision 

Closely linked with teaching is the supervision of masters and PhD students as they develop their research skills. Pam Denicolo (University of Surrey) implored us to view supervision as a profession and to value the identity of the supervisor.

And Sian Vaughan (Birmingham City University) described ‘communities of practice’ where supervisors can reflect on their experience, and engage in open conversation for their own personal and professional development.

Supervision is a subjective experience and the relationship between academic and student is fundamental. The vast majority of respondents to the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) rate their supervision as high quality and agree that their supervisor had the skills and subject knowledge to support their research.

In seeking to define excellence, student feedback will be important. And good supervision is one of the main factors affecting students’ confidence that they will submit their thesis on time.

Creative cohorts

In relation to the learning environment and student experience, various cohort models for PG programmes were discussed.

Among the local perspectives, three common themes emerged:

  • Students need space for informal exchanges: real or virtual hubs where they can come together across disciplines.
  • You can’t predict how and when people will make connections or generate ideas.
  • Students benefit from having the freedom to use hubs and cohorts in their own way for peer-support and mentoring.

Trevor Batten (Leeds Trinity University) described a process of ‘organic cohortness’, whereby creating space to allow students to grow together can lead to a range of positive, and often unintended, consequences.

With interdisciplinary research activity growing in intensity, providing early-career researchers with opportunities to network and collaborate across subject boundaries can only be a good thing.

Structural support

Mental health and wellbeing was a hot topic at the conference. Research at Nottingham and Loughborough has shown that PhD students may feel isolated and inadequate, and notice changes in their mental and physical health during the course of their studies.

But since there is no archetypal student, how can institutions guide students to find support? This is a particular issue for PhDs, who may suffer identity crisis over whether they are staff, students or something in-between.

Drawing the conference to a close, Aulay MacKenzie (Council of Validating Universities) discussed the impact of stress on students and the concept of ‘mental toughness’.

It is in the interests of institutions and supervisors to help students navigate the challenges of PG programmes and, as I argued in an earlier blog post, engaging students with their health and wellbeing can help them to develop resilience and enhance their academic performance.

Parting shot

As I departed Liverpool and made my way back to Bristol, I reflected on the conference themes and the notion of excellence in teaching, supervision and academic performance.

Over two days, I heard many examples of good practice and saw a commitment among the delegates to delivering high quality postgraduate education.

Even though it may be tricky to pin down a definition of ‘excellence’, I believe there is a strong community within the UK’s HE sector that is striving to achieve it.