How to Assess the Quality of a Postgraduate Program

Standards at most Postgraduate programs, universities or schools in Britain are set very high. Standards and quality in each program are controlled in many ways. This control comes partly from the university and partly from the assurance of quality systems of various other organisations. Below we take a look at how to assess the quality of a postgraduate program

Quality Assurance Agency (QAA)

Established in 1997, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) is an independent, educational body which safeguards the standards and improves the quality of higher education in the UK. They offer advice, support and guidance to all universities in the UK. Their ethos is all about providing the best possible experience for the students in higher education.

They conduct research on all UK universities and upload their findings and information on their website. They refer to this as an institutional audit. Through this they provide all good practices of a university that they have identified. These audits also include recommendations that they have suggested. They allow students to see how high the quality of education is at any university. 

These audits are carried out by a group of academics. They review the standards and quality of a university’s academic activities. The emphasis is on the students and their studies. They assess the methods that an institution uses to maintain their awards and standards. They usually begin by looking at a briefing paper containing facts, figures and analysis supplied by the university. Over several days they discuss matters related to the audit on a discipline or an institutional level with the head of the institution, senior staff members or student representatives. This team then examines how well the internal Quality assurance processes of an institution work.

Comments are made about how the university/institution is improving the quality and standards of the research programmes for postgraduates as well as its accuracy in the information it publishes. Finally, they will submit an audit report recommending what action needs to be taken by the institution. These audits are ongoing as a process and universities will receive them on a regular basis.  

What are External Examiners?

External examiners set the standards by which programs are checked. They tend to be staff from other universities or postgraduate schools. They may also be from business, industry or the profession depending on what is appropriate for the course. They provide an impartial view of the course as well as independent advice to ensure that courses meet the academic standards and quality that is expected across the sector. They ensure that the assessment and types of assessment are of comparable standard with other institutions. They also ensure that assignments have been marked fairly and the marking scheme for assignments and exams has been applied consistently. They also judge the overall standards of student performance. They produce a report to the vice chancellor illustrating succinct feedback on the marking of assignments, exams and student assessment.   

What are League tables?

There are several league tables and rankings concerned with higher education:

  • UK Rankings: The Times, The Sunday Times and The Guardian publish the three main rankings. Data is provided on platforms like Unistats and Which? University can be used in creating rankings of sort but this is not their main area of concern.  
  • UK Specialist/niche ranking: Other ranking tables can focus on niche aspects to higher education, such as People and Planets University League. They rank UK providers by environmental and ethical performance. 
  • International rankings: Times Higher Education, Quacquarelli Symonds, Shanghai Ranking Consultancy and the U-Multirank consortium compile the world university rankings.   

Each compiler has their own methodology. Most of the differences occur within the data definitions applied. For instance, sometimes slightly different groups of students are either included or excluded. Other differences occur within the calculations that are applied in the data. For example, the scores that are assigned to Research Excellence Framework (REF) outcomes. Although all three of these compilers create rankings for subject and provider levels, the Guardian produces subject tables before collating them to create its overall provider-level table. Whereas the Times, the Sunday Times and the Complete University Guide create the two types of tables separately by using a limited number of metrics at subject level. 

These methodological differences can lead to very contrasting league tables. For example, in the rankings for 2018 the University for Central Lancashire was ranked 67th in the Guardian’s overall table while finishing 93rd in the Times and Sunday Times table and 95th in the Complete University Guide.   

Assessment Exercise of Research and Institutional Audit

A few other viable sources of information can help you make decisions on a university – results received from the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and the results of Institutional Audit by the QAA. RAE is a test run 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 every couple of years. This is conducted to determine the level of care exercised during instruction in schools. The measurements taken change every so often, which is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to make use of the information.

If you consider 2008, every school undertaking research in that field had provided information for the RAE was measured using a 5-point scale. This grade considered the results of research, the research environment and other esteem indicators. This information is given using a profile which measures quality for the higher education institution presented to the UOA. This reduces the effect of single-point scores, which enable the readers to have a better base for judgement. This can lead to a better understanding and help funding bodies to identify high-quality research.

Below are quality levels delivered and their meanings:

4 = world leading research and of the highest rigour and quality

3 = internationally excellent research that’s original and significant. Yet falls short of academic excellence.

2 = internationally recognised research

1 = Nationally recognised research

Unclassified = Research that’s well below the standards of nationally recognized work.

All of the latest research ratings for the RAE can be found on the RAE website

The research quality of a postgraduate program is something you want to pay attention to. Many believe that the schools with high-quality research also have the best academic staff who provide you with the best experience. Getting a Doctorate or a master’s degree from a school with a high rating is also construed as an achievement. For the most part, this is true but not all RAE profiles can be trusted.

Staff do not always stay at the same school building and the profiles eventually become outdated.

In some schools the academic staff spends time researching rather than teaching programs or supporting students. This can result in you being taught by a junior teaching assistant or by another research student. You could be excited to work with world-famous professors. You must double-check to make sure that this is what will happen.

Lastly, these profiles do not tell you a great deal about the school’s standards for teaching. This is something you must check the examiner’s reports and various other sources for.


Postgrad.co.uk provides information about postgraduate courses and study in the UK. We list thousands of postgraduate courses from universities and colleges in the UK so you can search for the course of your choice.

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