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Postgraduate schools and programs: how to assess the quality

The standard of British postgraduate programs and the postgraduate schools or universities is very high. The quality and standards of every program are controlled in a number of ways, in part by each university itself and in part by quality assurance systems of other organisations.


Quality Assurance Agency (QAA)

Every university has to meet the standards imposed by the national QAA, which sets out general standards about masters programs and Doctorates. These standards are checked in universities by inspection visits, known as audits, and the results are published on the QAA website.

Professional accreditation

Any postgraduate program that has a professional component (for example in teacher training, or in engineering or medicine) has to gain approval from a relevant professional body. For example, a postgraduate program in marketing will be accredited by the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) as well as leading to the award of a masters degree. Following a program accredited by a professional organisation can be important in getting a job after you graduate, and if you want to take a programme in a professional field you should check which professional accreditation is essential and which is advisable. You can do this by checking with the relevant professional body in the UK or, if there is one, the equivalent professional body in your own country.

External examiners

Thirdly, all programs are checked for standards by a system of external examiners. External examiners are usually academic staff from a different university or postgraduate school who look at the work of students on the program and write an annual report on the quality and standards of the program.

In addition universities are required to publish on this website a range of information about the nature, quality and character of each degree program, and you can search the site by university and program.

League tables

Over the past ten years the British media have started to produce performance tables to compare postgraduate schools or universities. These are not official publications, for they are not produced by the universities themselves or by the UK government. They are produced by national newspapers using data that are available from official sources.

How helpful are league tables?
They have the advantage of giving a quick impression of relative quality and can certainly help you distinguish the very best from the very worst. But they need to be read with care and not used as the only source of information, because they have a number of problems:

Looking beyond the ratings

Some national governments insist that they will only give their own scholarships and support to students who go to study in a department rated above a certain grade in the UK RAE. Clearly, this could mean that you may have no choice. But if you do have a choice, be prepared to consider other universities.

Your decision about which postgraduate programme to study and which institution to do it at is an important one, and you will want to get it right, given the commitment of both time and money that postgraduate study will represent.

Read more about other factors to consider when choosing a UK postgraduate program.

• Each newspaper calculates its table in its own way using a complicated formula that balances academic achievements and facilities, and it is not always easy to know exactly how the calculation has been done. The newspapers producing the tables are often trying to emphasise particular aspects of universities – for example The Guardian tables put very little weighting on a university’s research income and achievements but put more weighting on its undergraduate teaching achievements.
• The data used are not always up-to-date.
• In most tables the ‘score’ difference in the table is quite small. This means that there may be very little difference between universities that are separated by many places, and year by year universities can move up or down a long way with only a small change in their data.
• The data in the tables are mainly about research and about undergraduate programs, so they may not be very helpful in choosing a postgraduate program.

It is now possible for you to make your own league table using the weightings that you think are important to you. This facility is available on The Times newspaper website – but remember that the basic data in the table is still that used to make The Times league table.

So, you should treat league tables with caution, and look at several before you decide what the tables are telling you about a particular subject in a particular university. On the other hand, the universities take the tables seriously, know that potential students use them to help in their choice and make great efforts to ensure the data on which the tables are based are as advantageous as they can be. Universities at the top of the tables will say how useful they are – universities near the bottom will say they are of little importance!


Research Assessment Exercise and Institutional Audit

In the 1990s and early 2000s there were two other official sources of information that could be used to help to judge the quality of a university or a subject within a university – the results of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and the results of Institutional Audit by the QAA. The RAE is undertaken jointly by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Scottish Funding Council, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales and the Department for Employment and Learning, Northern Ireland every few years (1986, 1989, 1992, 1996, 2001 and 2008 so far) to judge the quality of research being undertaken in universities. Its exact methods and results are changed each time, which makes it difficult to use the information, but the results are published and can help to compare universities.

In 2008, each subject discipline (in one of the 67 units of assessment (UOA) in the RAE) in each university undertaking research in that field that had made a submission to the RAE was graded on a five-point scale (Unclassified, 1*, 2*, 3*, 4*), taking into account research outputs, research environment and indicators of esteem. These are then presented as a ‘quality profile’ for each higher-education institution that had a made a submission in each UOA, which indicates the proportion of the research that meets each of four quality levels or is unclassified, instead of a single-point rating, as was the case in 2001. The thinking is that this will give reduce the averaging effect of a single-point score, allowing the assessors a finer degree of judgment, leading to a clearer picture of the breadth of quality of each submission and helping the funding bodies better identify pockets of high-quality research, wherever these are located.

The quality levels mean the following:
• 4* = research that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour.
• 3* = research that is internationally excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigour but which nonetheless falls short of the highest standards of excellence.
• 2* = research that is recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour.
• 1* = research area ithat is recognised nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour.
• Unclassified = research that falls below the standard of nationally recognised work or is work that does not meet the published definition of research for the purposes of the RAE.

If you are applying to do a postgraduate program then the quality of research in your subject at the university will be of interest to you. You will certainly believe that those universities with the best research record will have the expert academic staff to provide you with the best program. In addition it is likely that gaining a masters or Doctorate from a highly rated university will be seen as a better achievement. This is largely true, of course, but a good RAE quality profile is not an assured guarantee, for a number of reasons:
• The quality profiles will eventually become out of date, and staff will move on or retire.
• Academic staff in a department that is strongly research-driven may spend their time doing their own research rather than teaching on programmes or supporting research students. You may be taught or supervised by a more junior member of staff or even by other research students. So, while you may be able to work alongside the world-famous professor, you need to be sure whether this is really the case.
• The quality profiles will not tell you anything about teaching standards. You need to check teaching standards from examiners' reports or other sources.