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The University of Dundee offers the best student experience, according to the latest Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey. The Scottish institution rose from fifth position in 2010 to take first place from long-time champion Loughborough University by the narrowest of margins. Loughborough - which continues a strong showing in second place - had held the top spot for five years.
This year’s Student Experience Survey, conducted by market research firm YouthSight, gathered the views of more than 14,000 UK undergraduate students - the largest number to have been polled in the survey to date. Students rated their institution’s performance in 21 categories that matter most to them, from the quality of staff and lectures to social life and accommodation.
The overall results show that, despite some jostling for position, the universities in the top 10 remain unchanged from 2010. The sector’s average student experience score showed a slight improvement, as it has every year since 2008. However, the picture may change next year with the introduction of higher tuition fees this autumn, which is expected to lead to more competition between institutions and an increase in student expectations.
Dundee, which is not affiliated to any mission group, excelled in respect of its centralised and convenient facilities, cheap shops, students’ union and fair workload. It is a “really great story”, says vice-chancellor Pete Downes, adding that the institution has climbed steadily over the past few years and has no intention of slipping. Key contributing elements, he believes, are a recent £200 million investment in the campus, targeting improvements in student accommodation, library and sporting facilities; an inclusive and improved governance structure to give students a strong mechanism for raising issues; and a supportive town-and-gown relationship nurtured through partnerships between the university, student representatives and the city council that makes Dundee as a whole “very welcoming” for students.
The University of Sheffield took third place followed by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge; all three are members of the Russell Group of large research-intensive institutions. Ten post-1992 universities were in the top 40 in 2011, up from six in 2010. Highest scoring was Teesside University in joint 15th place, up from 31st last year.
Few post-1992 universities achieve top scores, says Ben Marks, YouthSight’s managing director. Typically more of their students live at home and so are more likely to have social lives outside the institution. Also, these institutions often specialise in subjects such as creative arts and business, which tend to yield lower satisfaction scores compared with medicine and the other science-related subjects that are offered more frequently by research-intensive universities.
The Russell Group had more institutions in the top 20 and top 40 than the 1994 Group of smaller research-intensive universities, despite 1994 Group institutions priding themselves on having more intimate campuses that offer a higher-quality student experience.
Collegiate institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge also shine, perhaps because they provide a “more nurturing” environment, suggests Marks. Investments in infrastructure such as libraries and sports centres can boost scores, although it does not necessarily sustain them in the long term, he adds.
Although the latest survey saw it drop to second overall, Loughborough University, a 1994 Group member, remained in first place in a number of categories including sporting facilities, students’ union and industry connections. “It is great to be in the top echelon,” says vice-chancellor Shirley Pearce, stressing that differences between the top positions were small. Loughborough - while most famous for its sport - has a “long tradition” of ensuring that students both have a good time and learn a lot, says Pearce, adding that there is a strong “hall spirit”.
The Royal Veterinary College showed the most improved student experience, jumping 45 positions to joint 58th (it won the 2011 THE Award for Most Improved Student Experience last November off the back of the results). Particularly improved were its ratings for community atmosphere and good facilities, with students also commending the high quality of their teachers and lecturers.
Infrastructure investments at the RVC’s London and Hawkshead campuses have helped, believes principal Stuart Reid. He also cites a car park specifically for student use; the implementation of a green travel plan at Hawkshead; the centralisation of student services into a “one-stop shop” with better opening hours; and an overhaul of the curriculum, first implemented in 2007, the effects of which are starting to show. In addition, the institution has simply got better at communicating to students what it is doing for them, he says.
Northern Irish universities also performed well - the University of Ulster and Queen’s University Belfast were the second and third most improved institutions, respectively. Ellen Douglas-Cowie, Queen’s pro vice-chancellor (education and students), says the institution concentrated on improving scores around student assessments and feedback. It now has a formal personal tutor scheme to assist students and has been working with schools in Northern Ireland - which supply 90 per cent of its undergraduates - to prepare future students for the transition into university life and independent learning.
The 24-hour welcome
Meanwhile, it was a “gratifying” result for the University of Surrey, says David Dickinson, director of student support. The university, which achieved the fourth-greatest improvement, has spent the past two years implementing a new “student experience strategy”, which includes a £13.2 million library and learning centre open 24 hours a day, and a major overhaul of its “student welcome”. “We are coordinating ourselves to deliver what students need when they need it,” he says.
London universities, meanwhile, continue to perform poorly in the survey, with the highest ranking achieved by University College London at 49th. Students who choose a London institution often choose it for the London experience rather than the student experience, which can subsume institutions’ efforts, says YouthSight’s Marks.
“There is a London factor…[the city] is a real double-edged sword,” says Rikki Morgan-Tamosunas, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Westminster, which ranked bottom in the last survey but moved up 15 places this time. On the one hand, the capital’s institutions are in the middle of what is widely seen as one of the world’s most exciting cities, with a “huge amount to offer students”. But on the other hand, many attending London’s post-1992 universities - including Westminster - live at home in the Greater London area, which means long travel times and a culture of students coming to classes and then leaving, which makes it “very difficult” to develop a sense of community in the university, she says.
Not that Westminster is giving up. Programmes and events that help students to experience the vibrancy of the city have helped to raise the institution’s performance this year, Morgan-Tamosunas believes, and current building projects to develop new community spaces will improve the student experience in the future.
So what are the lessons from the top and improving institutions? Many stress the need to listen to what students want and then act where possible: this could mean a small tweak to improve the learning experience or it could result in new buildings.
“If you listen and do nothing, that is probably worse than not listening,” says Dundee’s Downes. “The best advice I could give is to solicit feedback and act on it,” says Teesside’s vice-chancellor Graham Henderson. He, like Downes, partly attributes his institution’s rise to a greater involvement of students in university governance as well as the introduction of “retention support officers” to stop students falling behind.
Other leaders stress the importance of engaging the whole university in the agenda. “In terms of students’ perceptions, [institutions] are only as good as their last interaction,” says Surrey’s Dickinson.
Yet with regard to the specifics, the clear message is that although the survey presents a great opportunity for institutions to learn from the best, what works for one institution does not necessarily work for another.
“You have to work within the culture of your own institution,” says Loughborough’s Pearce. “There is no magic one-size-fits-all solution to delivering a great student experience,” concurs Marks.
Those that excel do so because they meet the expectations of their particular student audience. This entails understanding student needs that are particular to that institution, and honing a brand so as to attract a cohesive student body seeking a similar student experience. “It is ‘know thyself’ at an institutional level,” says Marks.
Figuring it out: Methodology behind the Student Experience Survey
More than 14,000 full-time undergraduates took part in the latest survey, an increase of over 1,000 from the preceding year. All respondents were members of YouthSight’s Student Panel, and their views were gathered between September 2010 and August 2011.
Just as in previous surveys, the student experience was broken down into 21 elements chosen by students themselves as key indicators. Participants were asked to rate how their university performed in each of the areas using a seven-point scale. Each attribute was assigned a weight reflecting its importance within the overall student experience.
The same weighting methodology has been used for the past three years, with the greatest weights applied to the attributes that correlated most closely to whether or not the respondent would recommend the university to a friend.
For the 2010-11 comparison, only universities with 30 or more ratings in 2010 and 50 or more ratings in 2011 have been included. As a result, some rankings in the “Rank 2010” column vary slightly in comparison with last year’s table.
Each university’s score was indexed on a scale from 1 to 100.
Participants, who were not told the purpose of the polling, were drawn from all years of undergraduate degree study and took the survey only once. They were given a small incentive for taking part - as YouthSight does on all its surveys.
YouthSight’s Student Panel was recruited via the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, and a new cohort is recruited annually.
The difference in scores of similarly ranked institutions will not be statistically significant, but YouthSight notes that the results have been stable year on year and believes the survey is effective at highlighting best practice and below-par performance.
To determine the winner of Times Higher Education’s Most Improved Student Experience Award, YouthSight looked at shifts in both the overall scores and the ranking positions of institutions between 2010 and 2011.
Each institution’s aggregate score was based on the mean of its ranked “change in score” and ranked “change in league table position” over the period. For the 2010-11 comparison, only universities with 30 ratings or more in 2010 and 50 ratings or more in 2011 were included.