How to improve the graduate student experience

In the last four months we have been debating from this rostrum different aspects related to the field of postgraduate education as a result of Covid-19. We have given special dedication to the question of the necessary adaptation of the programs and also that, when adapting, disruptive innovation had to be taken into account, to which we have dedicated an article.

Today we are going to give an account of something that is sometimes not repaired, but which is very important for the decision of students who are going to pursue a postgraduate degree: the experience of the student who has decided to do an MBA or another specific course.

Obviously we mean changes in your experience. Because there are those who moved to university residences, and when the pandemic exploded with force in 2020, they have hardly enjoyed a typical student experience. Precisely, it is the first year in which students begin to establish and promote social ties and the construction of relationships, which in many cases all this social activity was replaced by force (sanitary measures) with isolation.

Undoubtedly there is already a traumatic factor, although on another level, when students separate from the family to go to a course abroad, but what has worsened in 2020 and so far in 2021, is a certain disappointment with expectations unsatisfied with academic life, which has had an impact on individual psychology.

Universities and business schools have had mixed responses to this crisis, so it was logical that the debate about the degree to which educational institutions take responsibility for their students on a personal level was rekindled.

But the adverse situation that was 2020, since it has made many student experiences atypical, such as those who have enjoyed academic achievements during the pandemic but who have also suffered from the lack of in-person opportunities to celebrate them, since the Graduation ceremonies, like many other events, have generally been moved to Zoom. Considering that these types of events represent historical life experiences, their importance cannot be discounted.

As normalcy slowly resumes in various educational grades on a global scale, all educational institutions (including business schools) have responded by offering in-person learning opportunities on an optional, reduced, or rotating basis. It is evident that those who can finally attend a course, for example, hybrid, to the extent that they attend classes in-person programs, will find that the dynamics of their classroom or conference room, in their case, will have been altered with respect to how it covered the functions previously.

And given the continuing threat posed by COVID-19, social distancing measures are still observed and enforced in most countries, in the case of the requirement to use masks, or the recommendations to continue using them when Covid-19 compliance protocols are lax based on the behavior of the pandemic at that specific stage and in that particular society.

The use of masks and social distancing represent a potential barrier to student participation and interaction. We estimate that little by little, both business schools and universities will function as usual again, although as we have also anticipated, nothing will ever be the same, in reference to the massive incorporation of disruptive innovation in order to continue adapting the scope of education of postgraduate to the new reality.

Let’s see what the experience has been for students and researchers The British Association for Educational Research (BERA) is the UK’s leading authority on educational research, supporting and representing the community of academics, practitioners and all those involved in and with educational research both nationally and internationally.

Last August 23, they published on their Blog an investigation entitled “Postgraduate research students’ experiences of the coronavirus pandemic” whose authors are Ross Goldstone, Jingwen Zhang and Victoria Christodoulides. Let’s go through a review of their resumes:

-Ross Goldstone is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Social Sciences at Cardiff University, where he is studying the relationship between social class and participation and experience in higher education. His current interests are in educational inequality and the sociology of education, as well as broader debates around social class and Bourdieu’s ideas and their application in educational research.

– Jingwen Zhang is a PhD candidate at the University of Manchester School of Social Sciences. Her PhD focuses on active aging and health inequality between rural and urban areas in China. She is interested in life course theory, social determinants of health, and longitudinal data analysis.

– Victoria Christodoulides is a SWDTP Fellowship PhD student within the Department of Health at the University of Bath. Victoria’s project focuses on jointly exploring how knowledge of childhood trauma recovery affects understanding and practice of recovery beyond the biomedical.

Why is this study relevant to our AEEN publications?

Because from him we can observe the tremendous impact on the individual and social psychology of a research group that is supposed to always have a firm and positive attitude in the face of adversity, due to the sacrifice that research implies.

They maintain that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has caused most graduate research students to encounter research restrictions and conduct their research assignments from home. The reality is that with respect to a concept as intangible as the experience of a student or that of a young researcher, few statistical data are available to date, but of which we are having knowledge, they really have no loss and are perfectly extrapolated to our field of business schools.

This research by these three authors had a field study that was conducted in the United Kingdom in January 2021 and that explored the experiences of the students, the support received during the closure and the future plans of postgraduate researchers after the pandemic of coronavirus.

The survey questions emphasized questions such as: whether students were experiencing a range of mental health and social problems as a result of the pandemic. The results to this question are overwhelming: 85% said they experienced anxiety and stress; 80% experienced fatigue and exhaustion; 66% felt isolated or lonely; followed by another group that accounted for 69% who reported other mental health problems.

Referring to the applied methodology, the authors explain that they measured the average hours of work before and after the pandemic began, and found that a pre-pandemic average of 37.6 hours of work, which is consistent with the requirements research funding agencies such as the Economic and Research Council dropped to 32.4 hours during the pandemic and were clearly found to be more dispersed.

This suggests a varied negative impact of the pandemic on the work time of graduate research students. Additionally, more than half of participating students (52%) reported adjusting to working from home somewhat or very ineffectively, likely putting additional pressure on students productive work time during the pandemic. Additionally, ineffective work environments and practices would have been shaped by the inaccessibility of equipment for home work, a problem reported by 41% of respondents.

Other forms of support, including training to adjust research plans and adapt methods, were also not available for a significant proportion of the sample (52 and 44%, respectively). Supervisory support to adjust research plans (such as switching to remote research) and library resources (such as access to books online) were reported to be particularly helpful, with 81 and 67% of the students felt that each had been ‘useful’ or ‘very useful’, respectively.

The authors conclude that these findings evidence the difficulties experienced by the participating students of the UK postgraduate research during the coronavirus pandemic, demonstrating negative experiences in the health and well-being, academic study and personal life of students.

This research has shown that not only is the provision of support variable for participating students, but it also shows that the usefulness of the support provided is questionable. This strikes us as worrisome, hence the authors also conclude that as a result, more research is required to explore how best to support postgraduate research students during the ongoing pandemic, which should be done in collaboration with students in the joint construction of effective support measures. Without a doubt, from the AEEN we have to take due note of this and other investigations that are being published, but it especially deserves that we pay attention to what recommendations are being given from professional organizations, as is the case of BERA (British Educational Research Association).

We will also give ours, because we represent a vital group for the formation and training of a country, because the educational level of a nation depends on the capacity for economic and social development towards the future.

Antonio Alonso, president of the AEEN (Spanish Business School Association) and general secretary of EUPHE (European Union of Private Higher Education)