It’s a facile observation to say that the student experience has changed a great deal in recent years. Although the introduction of higher tuition fees did not precipitate a disastrous decline in applications (as many warned it might), there can be little doubt that it resulted in some significant shifts in the way that students and prospective students approach university.
One way to describe this change would be that there is now a more “professional” attitude to study. It’s not that students have become overtly “consumerist” (another of the big fears when £9,000 fees were introduced). Rather, it’s that they have become more serious about their own responsibilities and what they want to get out of their degree and, in turn, what they expect their university to do to help them fulfil these ambitions.
This is reflected in the modes of study students want and get, including smarter use of technology, the way many organise paid work around study, and expectations in terms of the skills and experience they seek out to prepare them for a career.
All this has a bearing on the student experience and makes understanding and responding to the demands of what may be called the “Student Experience 2.0” all the more pressing for institutions.
Claiming the top spot in our annual survey – which has been a feature of the UK’s higher education landscape for more than a decade – is Loughborough University, an institution that combines many of the attributes that students rate highly: it is a campus university, it has a clear, distinctive offering thanks to its pre-eminence in sport, and it performs strongly in teaching and research.
But to top a table such as this requires more than ticking boxes, as there is an element of alchemy to the student experience that is hard to pin down. It is about developing a community and providing the opportunity as well as encouraging the desire in students to spread their wings. As Loughborough vice-chancellor Robert Allison says: “When people visit on open days, I tell them that if they’re wondering if they’ll have a TV in their room, this probably isn’t the university for them.”
Our survey differentiates itself from parallel exercises, such as the National Student Survey (another very useful piece of work), by asking about the issues that students themselves have told us they value the most.
As such, we hope that what follows in these pages is much more than just a ranking: it is a resource for the whole UK sector to delve into, to help generate new ideas about how best to provide students with an environment and, yes, an experience that allows them to fulfil their potential.
And hopefully to enjoy those precious undergraduate years at the same time.