British higher education is in the throes of unprecedented change, and this is inevitably having an impact on the student experience.
Change has many potential benefits as well as some downsides. Even the introduction of higher tuition fees, while clearly unpopular among students, has arguably enabled universities to raise their standards and improve campus life. Accommodation and technology facilities have been significantly upgraded, and support services are now a high priority – at least in our experience. But there are also some disadvantages and many areas where there is still room for improvement.
In the context of this rapidly changing landscape, seven UK campus-based universities recently came together to consider where higher education reforms are leading us and what an excellent student experience in the future might look like. A three-day workshop involving senior staff and groups of students from the universities of Aberdeen, Dundee, East Anglia, Kent, Lancaster, Leicester and Loughborough University considered a range of possible scenarios.
Many issues were discussed during this exercise, but one point emerged as a central theme: while the current HE policy environment encourages greater competition, especially in England, there has never been a more important time for institutions to share best practice and collaborate.
The potential value of such collaboration became clear to students taking part in the workshop. By opening up and talking about how our universities were run, we learnt a great deal from each other and about our own institutions. Our conclusion was that all universities and student unions need to embrace such an approach.
During the course of the workshop everyone taking part acknowledged that our well-regarded institutions could still do better in a number of areas. So what did we think needed to happen to build a better future for campus-based undergraduates?
Firstly, being prepared to adapt ideas and listen to and act on feedback is the way to drive innovation and cut out complacency. The partnership between universities and student unions/associations must bring all students into the decision-making process. Another important aspect of this partnership is that it can help ensure there is sufficient welfare support available and enough focus on student wellbeing.
Secondly, courses need to stimulate critical thinking. Support networks should be in place to help students achieve; and extracurricular activities are necessary to help students acquire skills and confidence to thrive in the job market. It is also important that teaching practice is innovative, combining the best face-to-face teaching with learning technology to offer interactive and engaging lectures and seminars. We believe that students benefit from learning opportunities in small groups and that where there are larger learning groups these should be highly interactive. Lecturers need to receive training and support throughout their careers to help them deliver this.
A third key point was how vital it is that a strong digital infrastructure underpins the teaching and learning through high-speed and secure Wi-Fi networks across campus. Staff and students need to receive training to update their digital skills regularly.
Finally, it is important for universities to have an international outlook but also to reach out to businesses and local communities. They should build a reputation for being supportive partners to other institutions at home and abroad, sharing resources and best practice whenever possible and striving to promote opportunities for student exchange.
Working collectively rather than competitively benefits all parties. We hope that our workshop will be the start of something new – a way of thinking that brings universities together for the common good, reducing the focus on the individual institution’s position in the market and focusing instead on how the entire sector can grow and change.
Rhiannon Llystyn Jones is a past president of Lancaster University Students' Union, and Indre Urbanaviciute is a past president of Dundee University Students' Association