The publication of the National Student Survey (NSS) results always prompts a renewed interest in aspects of the student experience. This was especially true this year, as the NSS included the first cohort to graduate since the 2012 tuition fee reforms, allowing us to see the impact of higher fees on student satisfaction.
As reported by Times Higher Education in August, the good news for the sector is that the vast majority of students still hold their courses and universities in high regard – overall satisfaction has remained steady.
But with NSS scores having a significant impact on league table positions, and competition for new students growing in a tougher market environment, every university is striving to further improve its satisfaction ratings. Everyone wants to unlock the secret to achieving the highest levels of student satisfaction.
It seems remarkable, therefore, that more research has not been done to identify what aspects of university life and education contribute most to making students feel satisfied with their experience. Evidence is growing, but so far it presents a mixed picture.
This year’s Higher Education Policy Institute/Higher Education Academy student experience survey found similar levels of satisfaction to the NSS, with 87 per cent of students saying that they were very or fairly satisfied with their course. But other survey results have been less comfortable.
A poll by the National Union of Students found that more than half of graduates felt that their degree was not worth the tuition fees they were charged, although the basis for this judgement other than “gut instinct” is difficult to ascertain. The Hepi/HEA survey also demonstrated how you can get different results depending on the question you ask, as nearly a third (29 per cent) of respondents felt that their course represented poor or very poor value for money. Each of these studies sheds some light on the satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) question, but so far no “magic formula” for success has been found.
One idea that has gained ground is that students will be more satisfied if institutions treat them as partners in their learning experience. This notion would appear to be contemporary mantra, now codified within the framework laid down for us by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA).
The term “student engagement” is, however, a present-day label for interactions that took place at the earliest leading universities. Students were always consumers to some extent. Medieval students paid fees upfront and therefore expected reward via entry into a chosen vocation.
Rather than driving a wedge between students and teachers, students became ever more integrated, assuming leadership roles and resolving problems to improve the lot of the shared learning community. The advent of higher fees has reinvigorated these discussions for the modern day.
A key question that arises, therefore, is under what conditions is such a productive partnership most likely to develop in today’s institutions? It seems that small to medium-sized, research-intensive campus universities have a distinct natural advantage in this regard: large enough to provide access to a wide range of high-quality researchers and teachers, and able to provide this access on a human scale.
The embedding of education in a rich, vibrant research culture is at the root of a highly engaged experience for many students. What evidence is there that such institutions are generating higher than average levels of students satisfaction?
A review of NSS performance in the past few years shows that the 2015 results are far from an anomaly. A characteristic of campus research-intensive universities is the consistency with which they achieve strong results.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England has published scores for the “overall satisfaction” question of the NSS annually since 2010, providing benchmarks accounting for student and subject mix. Universities such as East Anglia and Loughborough have significantly outperformed their benchmarks every year, with Kent and Lancaster not far behind.
Explaining this calls us to explore some of the soft attributes common to campus universities – intangibles that cannot be accurately captured with metrics. Most are of a human scale, with grounds and social facilities that create a convivial atmosphere and community spirit.
Experience tells us how crucial this sense of belonging is for students. The Hepi/HEA study also found students reporting lower levels of well-being than the general population. The self-contained nature of a university campus assuages these issues, making support functions such as welfare, IT and career advice more accessible.
From a managerial point of view, the human scale of campus universities often allows senior teams and departmental heads to identify problems and resolve them quickly, enabling better staff-student connections and involving students in discussion about the future of their programme.
This goes some way towards explaining why campus universities appear to possess many of the “magic ingredients” that contribute to student satisfaction.
Mark Smith is vice-chancellor of the University of Lancaster, and Adam Child is the university’s senior policy and strategy officer.