NPC Guidelines on Codes of Practice for Instructional Postgraduate Courses (1993)

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In recent years there has been a huge increase in the number of students taking instructional postgraduate courses, and hundreds of new courses have been introduced at higher education institutions across the UK. While there are a number of national codes of practice for postgraduate research, there is surprisingly little for taught Master's and other instructional postgraduate courses. By producing these Guidelines on a Code of Practice for Instructional Postgraduate Courses, the National Postgraduate Committee hopes to redress this imbalance.

The Guidelines were written by Jamie Darwen of the National Postgraduate Committee, and are the result of considerable consultation with postgraduate students at several institutions over a period of fifteen months. Additionally, use was made of the guidelines in place at the University of Warwick and of the recommendations contained in reports produced by the Academic Audit Unit of the CVCP.

The Guidelines are given here in the form of a draft Code of Practice. We would hope that institutions with postgraduate students taking instructional courses would accept the Code as a basis on which to build their own specific codes, or, if such codes have already been drafted, to use the Guidelines as a yardstick to ensure that all points have been covered.

For completeness, paragraph 10.5 on Appeals Procedure is included in the Guidelines. It is to be expected that these would be replaced by institution specific guidelines of a similar nature.

The Introduction and Preamble are an integral part of the Code of Practice. These set the framework within which feedback and course evaluation can take place, thus helping to ensure good design and high quality of courses.

The National Postgraduate Committee was formed in 1982 to represent the interests and aspirations of postgraduate instructional and research students. All institutions with postgraduate students are entitled to representation on the Committee.

We would be very pleased to discuss further the points raised in the Guidelines, and to receive comments on them. If you would like any further details on the Guidelines or on the NPC itself, please contact the National Postgraduate Committee.

Introduction

Taught postgraduate courses typically lead to a Diploma or a Masters degree (eg. MA, MSc, LLM, MBA). Diploma courses usually require nine months full-time study (or up to two years part-time). Masters courses usually require twelve months full-time study (or three to four years part-time), and include project work and/or a dissertation, often undertaken during the summer months.

Courses can be roughly divided into the following types (although there are, of course, grey areas between all of these):

  • "Specialisation" courses
    providing an advancement of knowledge from the undergraduate level in a specific subject.
  • "Generalisation" courses
    typically conversion courses, bringing together students from a wide variety of previous disciplines.
  • Vocational courses
    These include courses leading to the attainment of a professional qualification (accredited by a relevant professional body), courses not available at the undergraduate level, and courses aimed at very specific jobs.
  • Courses providing a training in research techniques, often leading to subsequent PhD training.

The majority of taught postgraduate courses are only one year in duration. Because of this, by the time problems on a course have been identified, there is little time left to act on them. Also, because students' associations tend to hold their elections towards the end of the academic year, it is difficult for students on short courses to become involved in any system for representation. Therefore, effective mechanisms of student feedback from courses are needed. For this reason, whereas the NPC's Code of Practice for Postgraduate Research was mainly concerned with working practices during a programme of study, this Code also involves mechanisms for ensuring good design and high quality of the courses themselves.

Code of Practice for Instructional Postgraduate Courses

  1. This code of practice sets out the minimum guidelines for postgraduate students, tutors, course directors and departments. It is anticipated that these will be supplemented by separate Departmental codes and guidelines covering specific Departmental practice.
  2. Throughout this code, the following terminology is used. Departments are small scale administrative divisions within the institution and a Faculty is an administrative grouping of departments. Student refers to those people registered to study for an instructional postgraduate course, tutor to those members of staff who guide their study, course director to members of staff responsible for the administration of a course and head of department to the chairman or director of the department. "Student association" refers to the student body recognised by the institution as representing students attending the institution. It should be recognised that such terns are generic, and specific, locally used terms should replace them where required.
  3. These guidelines should be published annually by the Institution, and students and their tutors should acquaint themselves with them.
  4. Many of the procedures outlined below rely on the following:
    1. The existence of an independent Teaching Quality Committee within the institution. Such a committee is now stipulated by CVCP Guidelines, and so should be in place at most, if not all, institutions. The NPC recommends that there should be a student representative, and preferably a postgraduate student representative, on this committee.
    2. Good organisation of course representatives. A network should be in place whereby course representatives elect amongst themselves representatives to faculty boards; course reps should meet regularly, and the results of these meetings taken forward to faculty board meetings. Such co-ordination is essential to provide continuity from year to year, which is a major problem with one-year courses. Students' associations should educate representatives about their role, and the procedures involved. For example, checklists could be provided as a guide of what to look for during course review and evaluation procedures.

Design of New Programmes of Study

  1. A system should be in place for external or independent review of proposed courses, over and above peer review at the level of department or faculty. Student representatives should be involved in the review procedure.
  2. The teaching quality committee, or equivalent body, of the institution should produce a "checklist" for proposed courses, to ensure consistent quality across the institution.
  3. The review of proposed courses should include the course content, availability of necessary facilities, mechanisms for student evaluation and assessment and the experience of the lecturing staff.

Advertising the Course

  1. Prospectuses, and other advertisements, should give full and accurate descriptions of courses. In particular, the following should be included:
    1. the skills/experience/qualifications necessary to begin the course. a full description of the content of the course, in terms of course units on offer, and the time allocated for teaching, practical work, project work, etc. the length of the course (for both full-time and part-time study, where applicable).
    2. for overseas students, the level of English required.
    3. when and why students will study with undergraduates.
    4. a clear indication of the nature and goals of the course, drawing a distinction between "specialisation" (an advancement in knowledge from the undergraduate level in a specific subject) and "generalisation" (eg. conversion courses).
  2. Prospectuses should be reviewed by the students' association, and individual course entries reviewed by course representatives.
  3. The students' association should produce an "Alternative Prospectus" to present the viewpoint of students who have taken the courses on offer. This should include comments from students on course content, facilities and organisation.

Course Syllabuses

  1. Postgraduate courses should have a high quality of both content and facilities, to reflect the greater experience of the students over the undergraduate level, and (in many cases) the greater expense of taking the course.
  2. A high quality of course content should be achieved not by increasing the quantity of material presented (such that workload becomes too great), but by ensuring the quality of course components.
  3. The first few weeks of a course should provide a good introduction to the subject, taking into account the wide backgrounds of experience of the students, and concentrating on new skills which will be required for the remainder of the course.
  4. Sections of courses (or modules) should fit together well, allowing a programme of study with coherence and direction.
  5. Course syllabuses should be adhered to; courses should not be changed "on foot" to fit the facilities available.

Admission

  1. On the recommendation of the Head of Department/Course Director and Postgraduate Study Committee, applicants will be made a formal offer by the Registry. The offer will specify terms and conditions governing entry to and study on the course. Interviews and English language training may be appropriate in some cases.
  2. Course Directors should satisfy themselves that the applicant is appropriately qualified for the course (i.e. has the necessary ability and experience to begin the course). Entry requirements should be properly enforced.
  3. Any agreement between the institution and the student regarding terms and conditions for admission should be made in writing.
  4. The number of students admitted to a course should be limited such that all students can be given adequate teaching and facilities.

Course Administration

  1. Courses should be under the control of a Course Committee, not a single person.
  2. On smaller courses it may be more efficient for day-to-day administration to be carried out by a single course director. If this is the case, the course director should be accountable to the Course Committee, and should have good back-up for cases when he/she is unable to deal with a situation or is absent for any reason.

Supervision

  1. Each student should be appointed a tutor, often the course director or a member of the Course Committee, who should have a good knowledge of the course and its subject area.
  2. The tutor should be able to advise the student on choice of modules, etc.
  3. The tutor should give the student adequate information as to how he/she is progressing (with course work, etc.). The tutor must ensure that the student is made aware if either progress or the standard of work is unsatisfactory, and arrange any necessary supportive action.
  4. In addition to a tutor, students should have access to a counsellor, with whom the student can discuss matters which they would prefer not to take to their tutor or the course director. The counsellor should preferably be not directly involved with the course.
  5. All consultations with the tutor, course director or counsellor should be confidential.

Feedback and Course Evaluation

  1. Every course should elect a representative from amongst its students (larger courses may elect several). Regular staff/student committee meetings should be held, with course representatives attending.
  2. On smaller courses, informal channels may provide the most effective results. However, the formal mechanisms should still be in place, so that they can be used when needed (especially if the course undergoes a rapid expansion from year to year).
  3. Questionnaires should be used for student feedback. These should be given to students at least three times during the course.
  4. The teaching quality committee, or equivalent body, of the institution should produce an outline questionnaire to ensure consistent quality. Questionnaires should be designed to identify any particular problems encountered during the course, and areas for future improvement. Areas addressed should include:
    1. Quality and relevance of course content;
    2. Availability of facilities;
    3. Quality of lectures: delivery and adherence to syllabus;
    4. Depth of subject covered;
    5. Quality of project supervision.
  5. There should be a standard reporting procedure within the institution to ensure that the results of questionnaires and staff/student committee meetings are taken up at a higher level (eg. faculty boards).
  6. The teaching quality committee and the Students' Association should monitor the results of evaluations from year to year, to provide continuity. They should check for problems revealed by the evaluation procedure recurring in successive years, and ensure that these are addressed.
  7. Students should have access to information from course evaluations of previous years.
  8. Students' Associations should produce guidelines detailing the role of student representatives. They should also hold meetings of course representatives, to enable communication between representatives on different courses.

Projects

  1. Projects should be well planned in advance, by course staff in discussion with the student, to ensure that:
    1. adequate facilities are available for the project;
    2. the project has a fair chance of success within the given timescale. A clear description of the project should be given to the student (a title alone is insufficient).
  2. A project supervisor should be appointed to each student. The supervisor must have adequate time to supervise and a good knowledge of the subject area.
  3. Special arrangements must be made by the Course Committee for maintenance of supervision of students whenever the supervisor is absent. Supervisors should inform students of when they will be away for any extended period so that the student can plan accordingly and special arrangements can be made if necessary.
  4. Students undertaking project work in potentially dangerous circumstances should receive appropriate health and safety training from the institution (or organisation sponsoring the project), and should be provided with their own set of safety equipment where required.
  5. There should be a formal submission procedure for written reports or theses. Students must be made aware of this, and of dates for completion. Students should be given a receipt as proof of submission of written work.
  6. Any papers published should be agreed by the student and supervisor. Papers must give appropriate acknowledgement to the contribution made by the student.

Complaints

  1. Complaints should be taken to the tutor or counsellor in the first instance as soon as they occur. If there is no satisfactory resolution, the matter should be taken to the Course Director or Head of Department for discussion by the Course Committee, or other appropriate committee. The student will be informed in writing of the action taken. Where the student feels it appropriate, the matter may also be taken to the Dean.
  2. Each Department should ensure that the official channels for complaint remain operational and effective.

Examinations and Appeals

  1. The methods of assessment adopted on a course must be set out clearly in writing by the institution. For example: which elements of the course are to be assessed by examination, dissertation or viva voce examination; dates for submission of dissertations, coursework and continuous assessment exercises.
  2. A system for "blind" marking of anonymous scripts should be employed for all assessment by written examination, and for coursework where possible.
  3. The institution should have procedures in place to allow extensions to submission deadlines where delays have occurred due to circumstances outside the student's control. These may include illness, other absence or personal problems, relocation of students and/or staff partway through a project.
  4. Candidates who fail to satisfy the examiners in some part of the assessment should be allowed to resit written examinations and/or resubmit course work and dissertations.
  5. Students have the right to appeal against decisions made not to award a degree or diploma, or to terminate a registration. The Faculty Appeals Committee will hear the appeal. This committee will comprise the Head of Department, the Dean or equivalent, the Course Director, and three other senior members of academic staff. The committee should also include a member of the Students' Association if the student so wishes. In addition, the student may have a representative present at the appeal. If this appeal is unsatisfactory, the student has the right to appeal to Senate.