The things that matter most

Among the factors that make students (and others) happy is community, hard as it may be to measure

April 25, 2013

There’s always fun to be had with a phrase as nebulous as “the student experience” - witness Poppleton University’s recent tagline: “Experience the experience”.

But as we publish the annual Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey this week, there’s no denying that the term has cemented its place in the vocabulary, and our survey attempts to distil it to the 21 areas identified by students as mattering most.

In fact, almost every issue covered by THE relates in some way to the student experience.

Take grading and evaluation: it is something that is of fundamental importance to all students, and an issue that the UK sector as a whole is now reviewing in light of growing interest in grade-point average.

Our report from Boston describes the sense of community within the area’s universities that, at its best, the ‘student experience’ can represent

The relevance of assessment methods to a student’s “experience” is even clearer at doctoral level, where the dreaded viva is employed, and our cover feature considers how effective and fair the viva is as an evaluation tool.

Opinions vary widely, but the impression that emerges is of a system that works well most of the time despite the perhaps inevitable isolated problems of “rogue” examiners and the distorting effect that the extreme pressure of a viva can put on candidates.

In both cases, the most important outcome is that the process is rigorous and trusted, but there may also be an opportunity - particularly with the Higher Education Academy’s consultation over the potential for a national GPA system in the UK - to address the issue of comparability of qualifications between institutions.

Elsewhere in our news pages, we report from the streets of Boston, where the events that followed a bomb attack at the city’s marathon were both terrifying and unifying for a conurbation with more than 50 higher education institutions, including some of the best-known universities in the world. Our US correspondent, who was at the marathon and heard the explosions that killed a child and two women, explains how the shell- shocked university city rallied round during the subsequent manhunt, which resulted in a shoot-out that left one suspect dead and, later, led to the arrest of his younger brother, who was a student at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

The events were extraordinary in the literal sense, but our report describes the sense of community within Boston’s universities that, at its best, the “student experience” can represent.

One detail that stands out is the outpouring of goodwill towards Sean Collier, a young police officer based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was shot and killed during the hunt for the suspected bombers.

Recalling the 26-year-old officer’s interest in the study and research going on in MIT’s hallowed laboratories - work often conducted by graduate students similar in age to him - one student said: “I didn’t fully appreciate at the time having someone coming by with fresh eyes, full of genuine enthusiasm and curiosity about what I was doing.”

Collier wasn’t an academic, a well-paid administrator or even a pastoral worker, but he was a valued part of the lives of the students who knew him.

A thousand and one things contribute to make a university, and a student’s experience - and not all are quantifiable.

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