Skills, yes, but what of the thrills?

Universities have to balance meeting students’ pragmatic expectations with delivering a satisfyingly rounded experience

May 8, 2014

What is the student experience? It’s not an easy question to answer satisfactorily.

One response is that it’s an overused bit of jargon, an attempt to distil everything a university is and does into something resembling a vitamin pill, neatly packaged and easily swallowed.

But the concerted effort to understand and enhance what a student gets out of the chunk of their life spent at university should be a positive, notwithstanding the accompanying rise in tuition fees.

The results of the annual Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey will be published next week, and give one snapshot of the universities judged by their students to be getting this right. The criteria range from core academic issues to matters that are more mundane but important nonetheless.

A student experience that isn’t, above all else, enjoyable is probably not an experience worth having

It’s impossible to avoid thinking back to one’s own time as a student when considering the extent to which attitudes, expectations and lifestyles have changed.

One observation from my own discussions with students on campuses around the country (often union reps, which may have some bearing) is that today’s undergraduates have firm expectations. That’s not to say they are “consumerist” necessarily, but many seem to have a mental checklist of what they expect to get out of university, a list that might typically feature an industry placement, experience as a volunteer, experience in a team sport and so on.

There’s nothing wrong with this, and were I to have my own time over again, I too would go in with a checklist: studying abroad for a spell would be at the top.

But my impression is that students are thinking and planning in much greater detail than they did 10 or 15 years ago, always with an eye on their “employability”.

On a recent visit to one university, two students talked to me at length about their opportunities to develop skills that employers would value. When I asked them if university was still “fun”, they looked bemused, before regaining their composure and insisting that it was.

I hope so, because a student experience that isn’t, above all else, enjoyable – intellectually as well as socially – is probably not an experience worth having.

Apart from anything else, as an employer it’s clear that “skills” are far less tangible than formal achievement records might suggest, and such things as enthusiasm and creativity, which are inextricably linked with enjoyment, are as important as almost anything else.

In our feature pages this week, Joanna Williams and Jennie Bristow argue that students have not been liberated and empowered by attempts to put them “at the heart of the system”, but domesticated and tamed. It may be controversial (and of course student protest is not dead – ask the University of Sussex or the University of London), but it’s worth reflecting on their argument as the new contract between student and university continues to take form.

If, as Williams and Bristow argue, students “at the heart of the system” means a “student voice that is no longer personified by the rebellious student who challenges institutional conventions”, but rather by the “good student who gives feedback when asked, contributes to staff-student liaison committees and makes only realistic suggestions that confirm a consensus”, then whose interests does that serve?

The Technicolor days of the 1960s have been and gone, but whatever today’s student experience is, it shouldn’t be beige.

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