Redbricks get thumbs down

September 23, 2005

The results of a national student survey make salutary reading, with courses and access at new and old universities coming under fire

The first-ever national survey of student satisfaction will prove uncomfortable reading for redbrick universities who perform relatively poorly in the eyes of their students in a number of individual disciplines.

The large research universities, traditionally the most popular institutions for well-qualified students, come bottom in the satisfaction scores in several subjects.

Departmental heads who will have to do some soul-searching in the coming months include those in civil engineering at Leeds University; mechanical engineering at Manchester University; human and social geography at Sheffield University; area studies at York University and nursing at Southampton University. They all have the least-satisfied students in their subject areas, according to the overall satisfaction score compiled by The Times Higher .

Others at the bottom of the subject tables are Cardiff University's medical school; English-based studies and mathematical sciences at King's College London; and economics at Queen Mary, University of London. Imperial College London compares poorly with other institutions when it comes to student experiences in a number of science subjects. The contrast could not be more marked for the Open and Loughborough universities, who are top in the satisfaction stakes for ten and six subject areas respectively.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said the overall results of the survey, overseen by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, showed the pressure staff were now under in such institutions to deliver for students.

"In many universities, this pressure is at its most intense when staff are seeking to juggle research work with teaching and an ever-increasing administrative burden," she said.

Funding council officials who carried out the survey believe that, while the overall results of the survey point to general satisfaction among students, universities can still learn lessons from extremely low and high scores at the level of individual subjects.

Sir Howard Newby, Hefce's chief executive, launching the survey results this week, said: "We want responses from institutions themselves - for example, how their results vary between one subject and another. We think they should compare themselves with others and ask themselves searching questions."

Particularly instructive will be the few departments scoring less than two out of five on specific student feedback survey questions, such as Cardiff medical school and performing arts courses at Westminster University.

Equally notable are the very successful courses boasting scores of over 4.7 out of five, such as history and archaeology at Birkbeck College and physical sciences at Loughborough University. Both got impressive scores for their efforts to make studies "intellectually stimulating" for students.

Many specialist institutions, such as Stranmillis University College in Northern Ireland and the Institute of Education, also did well in the survey. These, however, are not listed in our institutional table, although general higher education colleges as recognised by the funding council are included in the list.

The findings of the 170,000 final-year students who completed the questionnaire last spring show that medical students are among the least satisfied with their courses overall.

Kirsty Lloyd, chair of the British Medical Association's medical students'

committee, said: "These results are cause for concern. Class sizes in some schools are becoming unmanageable and, given that it will soon cost Pounds 3,000 to study medicine, students have a right to expect the highest possible standards."

Welcoming the OU's results across all subjects, Brenda Gourley, its vice-chancellor, said: "Our students are often making quite a sacrifice by taking on a degree while working. For this reason, they tell us if they are dissatisfied with anything and we act on it."

Carolyn Price, head of the OU's department of philosophy, said: "We have been careful about responding to students' needs."

But few universities will be able to rest on their laurels, according to David Eastwood, vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, whose university did well in the survey.

He predicted considerable variation in the results each year. "Even a few different answers next year could change the score for a university considerably," he said. "The survey's underlying message is that overall students are pretty satisfied. But universities across the country will be looking at the results and seeking to improve them by next year."

anna.fazackerley@thes.co.uk </a>

How does it all add up?

The Times Higher satisfaction score provides the most accurate overall measure of the feedback provided by students as it is based on their responses to specific questions. It is an average of the scores received for 21 individual questions in the survey.

Students rated their lecturers out of five in categories ranging from teaching (for example how good staff were at making the subject interesting) to assessment and feedback, academic support, organisation and management, learning resources and personal development. (The table on this page lists only separate institutional scores for the first two categories.)

Students also answered a separate question that asked them to rate their overall satisfaction with their course - which is not included in the The Times Higher satisfaction score.

The following institutions are not included in the table because of response rates of less than 50 per cent: Luton, Southampton Solent, East London, South Bank, Thames Valley, Cambridge, City, Oxford and Warwick universities.

'I could be online with my class while in my bunker'

Tim Brokker had to block out the sound of missile fire when he wrote his history essays, writes Jessica Shepherd .

The former Royal Navy helicopter technician was stationed on HMS Invincible , off the coast of Iraq, for the first year of his undergraduate degree with the Open University.

But he had "every bit the student experience" - because of the ease with which he could contact tutors and fellow students.

Mr Brokker, who graduated with a 2:1 in June, said: "I am not surprised at how well the Open University has done in this survey.

"I haven't a bad word to say about it. The tutors tried to make it as easy as possible for me to study in the middle of a war zone. The student support is excellent, he said.

"The technology used by the university makes a big difference. I could be online with my class while in my bunker and could e-mail essays to my tutors in the middle of the night."

Mr Brokker, aged 40, is now at Exeter University studying to be a trainee secondary school history teacher.

"Distance learning may not be for everybody," he said. "You have to be quite independent, have good time management and be a lateral thinker. I wouldn't have chosen anywhere else for my first degree."

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