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How a student perception survey explained declining postgraduate numbers

A series of university chalk drawings on a green background to visualize analysis of a student perception survey.

In the UK, the annual National Student Survey (NSS) is a key source of student feedback. However, despite its encyclopedia of questions covering nearly every aspect of student satisfaction, it doesn’t provide a complete picture. Universities still need to conduct regular student perception surveys to fill the gaps.

It’s one of these gaps that a UK university used Relative Insight to address. The institution had seen a sizeable fall in the number of students enrolling on its postgraduate courses. This was backed up by a greater number of students disagreeing with three statements in this year’s National Student Survey compared to 2022:

  • Good advice is available on further study options
  • The course has stimulated my interest in the field of study
  • The course has stimulated my enthusiasm for further learning

To assess why fewer postgraduate students are enrolling, and assess how negative sentiment around undergraduate experience impacts decision making, the university conducted a rapid student perception survey. Sent to students who graduated in 2023, the two-question survey consisted of a yes/no query – to whether they’d consider postgraduate study at the university – and an open-ended question asking why.

The institution wanted to implement any changes before the start of the academic year, meaning analysis had to be instantaneous. The university used the Relative Insight text analysis platform to perform an analysis of open-ended responses in hours. Within two days, its institutional research team had strategies that addressed students’ feedback.

The university surfaced quantifiable insights in the platform by comparing free-text responses from students who answered ‘yes’ versus those who said ‘no’. Here’s what its institutional research team found.

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Community and contribution in potential postgraduate student feedback

Students indicating a willingness to pursue postgraduate study at the university demonstrated a desire to be part of something bigger.

They used the word ‘contribute’ 16.2x more, and talked about the topic of ‘giving’ 2.5x more. They were also 15.3x more likely to use the phrase ‘give back’ as part of their student feedback.

I want to contribute to the advancement of knowledge in my field and be part of meaningful research.

These respondents to the university’s student perception survey also highlighted the campus community as a key reason for their potential return. They used the word ‘community’ 3.0x more, as well as being 1.9x more likely to reference the topic of ‘connection’.

This group also highlighted being a ‘part’ of the community infinitely more, meaning people not considering postgraduate study didn’t use the word at all.

By studying here, I can be part of a diverse and inclusive academic community that values different perspectives.

Students open to postgraduate study at the university also expressed a desire to continue learning. They used the phrase ‘lifelong learner’ infinitely more, suggesting that as much as the university’s capabilities, these students also had the required attitude and thirst for knowledge for further study.

I’m motivated by the prospect of being a lifelong learner and continually expanding my horizons.

Myriad reasons for declining further study

A variety of reasons emerged from those not considering postgraduate study when responding to the student perception survey. Some were related to the university itself, while others were focused on students’ general attitude to further study.

In terms of the university itself, students in this group were infinitely more likely to use the word ‘lack’ and phrase ‘university’s lack’. They suggested many elements the university didn’t have, such as research investment, commitment to sustainability and careers advice.

The university’s lack of investment in research funding and opportunities has stifled my passion for academic exploration.

However, the institution found that students’ general reasons for rejecting postgraduate study offered greater scope for action. For example, they were 4.3x more likely to use words relating to ‘finance’, including ‘debt’, ‘investment’ and ‘loan’. This showed that financial factors were a key component in not pursuing a postgraduate qualification.

Honestly, the cost is a major deterrent. I’ve already accumulated significant student debt, and I can’t justify taking on even more for a postgrad degree when there’s no guarantee of a higher income.

Allied to this sentiment, these respondents talked about the topic of ’employment’ 2.0x more and were 7.5x more likely to use the word ‘job’. Earning money immediately was a key reason why this group isn’t considering further study.

The job market is competitive, and I don’t want to delay my entry into it by spending more time at uni.

Finally, student perception survey feedback highlighted that some needed time to think about their next steps. Others were adamant that their education was over. These segments used the word ‘time’ infinitely more to describe their state of mind.

I’ve burnt out from the pressure of undergrad. I need a break, time for self-care, and to reassess my goals.

Student perception survey analysis leads to immediate action

After identifying issues through falling postgraduate enrollment numbers and quantitative student feedback in the National Student Survey, the university employed a combination of a student perception survey and Relative Insight’s text analytics software to implement changes in time for the new academic year.

Thanks to the efficiency of our text analysis software, it’s institutional research team has already developed strategies and tactics with other university departments to boost postgraduate enrollment. Not only will these plans improve areas where the university is lacking, the team has also developed short-term tactics that immediately address students’ general concerns about postgraduate study.

For example, the institution will ensure that the financial support it offers to postgraduates is much more visible, particularly during the first semester. The university is also increasing the number of deferred placements it offers postgraduate students. These actions seek to address students’ financial concerns and their need for respite after their undergraduate degree.

It also plans to reinforce positive outcomes associated with the university. Its alumni team has been redirected to focus on securing interviews and events with postgraduate alumni who are leaders in their fields.

The institution will change its messaging, both in prospectuses and marketing campaigns, to highlight the community feel of its campus. It wants prospective postgraduates to feel they’ll be part of something, echoing the language used by student perception survey respondents.

Need to analyze student feedback in a tight timeframe? Try Relative Insight now to rapidly turn text data into actionable insights.

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