Niche universities highly rated as student satisfaction slips

Student support improving but still lowly ranked, Australian survey finds

March 10, 2020
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Australian undergraduates have become marginally less satisfied with their time at university despite ranking the quality of student support services better than ever.

A survey of more than 260,000 students has found that 78 per cent rate their overall educational experience positively, down 1 percentage point on last year and the lowest result in the survey’s nine-year history.

And while the positive rating for student support was more than 20 percentage points higher than when the metric was introduced in 2012 – and marginally better than any result since 2014, when the current measures were applied – more than one-quarter of respondents still expressed dissatisfaction with student services.

The findings come from the 2019 Student Experience Survey, part of the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching survey programme. Education minister Dan Tehan warned that the results could count against universities in the government’s performance-based funding scheme.

He said that student experience was one of the four measures harnessed as “key drivers” of the programme, along with graduate employment, student success and participation by under-represented groups. “I encourage all universities to look deeply at the results and continue to focus on how to improve the student experience,” he said.

Small niche institutions received the best ratings from undergraduate students, led by the University of Divinity in Melbourne at 93 per cent, Perth-based University of Notre Dame Australia at 88 per cent and Bond University on the Queensland Gold Coast at 87 per cent. Deakin and Edith Cowan universities rounded out the top five.

The prestigious Group of Eight research-intensive universities all attracted roughly average ratings, apart from UNSW Sydney, which received easily the lowest university rating of about 63 per cent – down from 74 per cent in 2018, and possibly reflecting the unpopularity of the university’s recently introduced trimester calendar.

Private and independent colleges exhibited a greater range of responses than universities, with 12 attracting positive ratings above 90 per cent but two scoring below 50 per cent. Avondale College of Higher Education, which was recently granted university college status, attracted an overall positive rating of 85 per cent – better than all but three universities.

Among the disciplines, dentistry received easily the worst overall satisfaction rating of 68 per cent. Computing and engineering, subjects popular with international students, attracted the next lowest ratings of 72 per cent and 73 per cent respectively. Humanities disciplines including psychology, social sciences and law were among the lowest rated for learner engagement.

Undergraduates generally became less satisfied as their studies progressed. Latter-year undergraduates rated their experience of teaching quality, student support, learning resources and overall satisfaction between six and eight percentage points lower than first-year students. But they became happier with their skills development and learner engagement as time passed.

The survey found that Australian students rated their university experiences less favourably than their counterparts in the US, UK and Canada, where similar questionnaires are conducted. While most European countries’ systems attract lower ratings than Australia, the Eurostudent survey uses a substantially different methodology.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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