The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

4. Survey existing undergraduates

Although using focus groups can prove to be particularly effective, it is almost always appropriate to select and design survey questions as a supplementary method to solicit feedback from individuals in the field, in this case prospective postgraduate students. Thus, as part of the initial work in designing a postgraduate degree, it would be judicious to undertake various qualitative research methods to assess students’ perceptions and extract information that will ensure a smooth development of the work ahead.

Following the ideas generated through the use of a focus group and any additional ones that the staff wished to investigate, the next step would be to develop a pilot survey and then forward this to a selected group of third-year undergraduates, for example, those from the Student-Staff Liaison Committee, to obtain feedback and refine the questionnaire. In contrast to the open questions of the focus group, the survey would be primarily composed of closed questions of a categorical nature; either a straightforward yes/no or a Likert ranking scale. The option for the respondents to provide further comments can be given for the majority of questions. Both the idea of the pilot survey and the opportunity for respondents to add additional comments is on the basis that it would be presumptive to assume that all eventualities were covered.

A potential framework for a questionnaire into student interest and perception regarding the development of new PGT programmes is suggested below to encompass the following broad themes:

  • student background: nationality, gender, current undergraduate degree programme
  • interest in undertaking a PGT programme
  • attitudes and drivers as to where students wish to undertake a PGT programme
  • the subject theme of a proposed PGT programme
  • access to information important in the decision-making process
  • examining the level of fees that students would be willing to pay.

The danger with any questionnaire is to overload it with numerous questions and permutations of the same question. There is a trade-off between ensuring the thoughtful participation of respondents and the breadth of issues to be explored. Clearly, close reflection on the findings of the focus groups and any issues arising from the undertaking of a pilot survey should reduce the potential of such an imbalance occurring in the questionnaire, or at least limit its impact.

Questions concerning student background provide an insight into how interest in undertaking a PGT programme relates to potentially crucial individual characteristics amongst respondents (e.g. nationality and gender) and whether their current undergraduate degree influences attitudes/perceptions towards PGT programmes. These will permit disaggregation of the findings to allow a deeper examination of sub-markets, for example, whether there is a greater preponderance for overseas (i.e. non-home/EU) students to seek to pursue a PGT programme compared to home/EU students. Inclusion of such a variable will then permit a comparison across the whole questionnaire, which given the significance of attracting overseas students for the majority of UK HEIs could be a crucial factor in the eventual design of a new PGT programme.

A potential problem with the use of a blanket questionnaire for all final year undergraduates is that it is perfectly conceivable that a significant proportion either may not intend to undertake further studies, or have as yet to fully think through the implications. Clearly, it is possible to eliminate such potential difficulties through only selecting those students who have firmly decided to extend their learning by a PGT programme. Logistically this is likely to prove problematic in terms of distributing the questionnaire to such a select group. Also it is perfectly possible that the surveyed and the non-surveyed both include non-decided students.

Hence, questions to ascertain interest in undertaking a PGT programme, such as ‘Are you considering taking a Master’s degree? – yes/no’ and ‘Have you researched potential Master’s courses and their fees? – yes/no’ should be included. These permit questionnaire distribution to the entire final year cohort to maximise the number of returns in the simplest manner possible, and a disaggregated analysis of the results to filter them for differing attitudes towards either undertaking a PGT programme or to more subtly test the level of commitment. Additionally, the latter question allows a judgement to be made regarding respondents’ answers in terms of how realistic and well-informed they are in terms of the level of likelihood of undertaking a PGT programme.

Next, it is important to understand the attitudes and drivers that inform student choice when they are seeking to undertake a PGT programme. The first question under this theme might therefore be worded as ‘What factors are important to you when considering a Master’s degree?’ with a number of potential reasons provided, for example:

  • reputation of university
  • reputation of course
  • degree title
  • future career
  • fees.

Evidently, not all permutations can hope to be encapsulated regarding individual student preferences, so a broader strategy has to be applied to elicit information on what are likely to be central concerns for PGT programme applicants. These could be examined through the standard Likert five-point scale, whilst the inclusion of ‘Other’ and space for respondents to add their own determinants provides a safety net if significant options have been omitted.

Seeking to assess students’ destination for a PGT programme is a potentially sensitive issue given that the survey is being conducted in-house. The final year students participating might feel under pressure to indicate their eagerness to remain within the department. Thus it is important to have initially reassured them that all responses are anonymous and that you are seeking unbiased opinions. However, the issue of choice for further study needs to be addressed through a question with wording such as ‘Would you like to stay within this department for your Master’s assuming we offered one in an area of interest to you? – yes/no’. Clearly, a primary reason for a department to be considering the introduction of new PGT programmes is to provide a natural follow-through for their undergraduates onto what is becoming an increasingly commonplace level of further learning. Moreover, it is likely that such an already captured market will provide the bedrock of recruitment to a domestic postgraduate course.

However, it is entirely possible that current undergraduates will, at the minimum, apply elsewhere. Therefore it is important to discover why this might occur with a direct follow-up question worded along the lines of: ‘If no, then what factors would make you want to choose another Master’s?’ with reasons including:

  • wish to experience another department
  • wish to experience another university
  • wish to experience another city.

Again the option of including ‘Other’ is available so respondents can express additional reasons.

However part of the rationale for the introduction of an ab initio PGT programme is the retention of current students; hence it is important to switch back to a more positive approach with a question worded along the lines of ‘What factors would be important in your decision to stay within the Department for your Master’s?’ Potential reasons to be offered to respondents, on a Likert scale, would, for example, include:

  • subject focus of Master’s degree
  • atmosphere of department
  • familiarity of teaching/assessment
  • convenience of staying in the city.

The idea again would to be develop questions that cover a range of permutations, in this case, both tangible (e.g. the subject focus of a postgraduate degree), and intangible concepts that could be equally crucial within the mix of factors related to a student’s decision-making process through reinforcing positive perceptions and familiarity of their current experience.

As previously indicated, a key overarching theme when considering the development of new postgraduate courses is for the department to remain flexible and responsive to market demands and not solely focus on the supply aspects of underlying expertise and interests of staff within the department. Hence, the questionnaire should reflect such a proposition through offering a wide selection of potential themes for the new PGT programme(s). For example, at the basic level this could constitute both a mix of general subject disciplines:

  • business
  • management
  • finance
  • economics
  • international
  • development,

and broader concepts:

  • global
  • trade
  • applied
  • policy.

The temptation at this point is to overload the questionnaire with either too many potential subject disciplines or for them to be too specific. Whilst the former might appear beneficial in narrowing down student preferences, it is likely to result in a proliferation of responses from which it will be difficult to see the ‘wood from the trees’. Therefore based on initial findings from the focus group, and whilst paying some adherence to the inherent interests and expertise within the department, the use of generalised subject disciplines are likely to yield sufficient indication of preferences.

The additional use of broad concepts potentially fulfils two functions. First, to see if such keywords are something that would draw applicants to a PGT programme through their inclusion in its title. Secondly, in relation to highlighting specifically whether the underlying nature or approach indicated by the concept is one that is valued for a postgraduate degree.

The next key issue to investigate is how potential applicants to a PGT programme gather information important in their decision-making process. There is little point in proceeding through a careful process of designing your ab initio postgraduate course if, in its marketing, what students see as vital is omitted. Hence it would be helpful to include a question that asks ‘What kind of information is important to you (e.g. on a website and/or booklet) when considering a Master’s degree?’. Potential options could include:

  • detailed description of core modules
  • detailed description of optional modules
  • future career prospects/pathways
  • student profiles
  • part-time option for the degree.

As illustrated above, such questions encompass a number of themes relating to aspects regarded as key to the decision-making process/the differentiation between competing PGT programmes, for example, concerning the syllabus. Additionally, it is often important to enable potential students to visualise what undertaking this pathway of further study would result in, thereby bringing an abstract and as yet untried concept to life and enabling them to more closely relate to that new experience. Finally, given the current financial climate both HEIs and potential students are frequently now having to consider more imaginative ways to undertake further study. Moreover, if there were to be a significant demand for some form of part-time provision then this could impact upon the programme’s overall delivery.

A further part of the questionnaire could focus on a topic that a cynic would suggest is close to economists’ hearts – that of money, and in this case the issue of tuition fees. Thus include a question addressing this, perhaps in terms of ‘For a Master’s within the department what level of fees would you be willing to pay? (Answer depending whether you are a home/EU or overseas student; current Master’s fees are: home/EU = £x,xxx; overseas = £xx,xxx)’.

As discussed above in relation to delivery provision, the financial equation regarding higher education has recently become more complicated by external factors (e.g. continuing effects of the 2008 credit crunch induced recession) and internal factors (e.g. the introduction of significantly higher undergraduate tuition fees). Thus the fee level for PGT programmes has become clouded as potential applicants will be carrying a heavier debt burden from their previous studies, whilst the undergraduate-postgraduate fee gap has not only now significantly closed for many, but will actually be reversed in most instances, especially for home/EU students. Additionally, from the point of view of the university/department it would be of interest to know the elasticity of demand for its new PGT programme to ensure the pricing strategy is optimised.