Student Experience Survey 2016: universities that get it right

Loughborough University tops the poll, with its emphasis on student participation, says Jack Grove

March 17, 2016
Three university students

THE Student Experience Survey 2016 results

Loughborough University tops this year’s Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey, moving up from second place in 2015.

Loughborough is rated highly by students in all 21 aspects covered by our poll, winning particular plaudits for the quality of its teaching, its campus facilities and its library.

Loughborough is widely seen as the UK’s premier university for sport, and so it is no surprise that its sport and fitness facilities are rated the best in the country; but the university also takes top spot for the quality of clubs, societies and other extracurricular activities.

Robert Allison, vice-chancellor of Loughborough, says that coming first in this year’s student poll was “absolutely fantastic, as it recognises all the excellent things that staff and students are doing here”.

At the heart of Loughborough’s success is the ethos that students should work with staff to create a good university experience for everyone on campus, Allison says. “When people visit us 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.”

At Loughborough “you can really embed yourself in the university, and if you do, you will have all sorts of chances and opportunities”, he continues.

For instance, final-year students often partici­pate in a research project, while others take part in international secondments, such as those enjoyed by mechanical engineering students who have just returned from visiting the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“If you have that desire to co-create your university experience, rather than just seeing yourself as someone who shows up for 10 weeks a term, it takes you to a different level as a student,” Allison says.

This spirit of partnership has been crucial in encouraging students to get involved with clubs, societies, charity events and sporting activities, says Jess Excell, president of Loughborough Students’ Union, whose rating was bettered only by the ­University of Sheffield’s acclaimed students’ union.

“People talk about the ‘Loughborough ­experience’ and we’re proud that so many people dedicate so much time to everything that is on offer here,” she says.

For instance, the university was crowned the ­British Universities & Colleges Sport champions for the 35th consecutive year in 2015, raised around £1.4 million for charity and gave about 28,000 student hours in volunteering.

This year’s second-placed institution is Harper Adams University, which is a new entrant to our table, having secured the requisite number of student respondents for the first time.

The specialist agricultural institution, which gained full university status in 2012, was rated highly for its teaching and staff, finishing top of the table for its links to industry.

“All our degrees are sandwich courses, so students will spend a year in industry, while our staff have relevant specialist experience, which is very valued,” explains David Llewellyn, vice-chancellor at Harper Adams. “Students may also work on cutting-edge research projects, or on our community farm, which is very helpful for ­explaining technology that is new to the industry.”

The Shropshire university also scored highly for its social scene, pleasant campus and overall friendly and inclusive ­atmosphere.

“It’s a small, campus-based university where people know each other. It’s more like a village than a large town,” Llewellyn explains, adding that 80 per cent of students come from a rural background, enabling them to bond quickly because of their passion for the countryside, as well as the usual sports and students’ union activities.

In third place is the University of Sheffield, which finished top overall in 2014, and is ranked joint first for its social life, alongside the universities of Cardiff, Leeds and Newcastle.

Sheffield is also the university most likely to be recommended by its students to their peers (perhaps the most important score of all), alongside Loughborough, Harper Adams and the University of Bath, which takes fifth spot overall after topping last year’s poll.

Either side of Bath are the University of Oxford (fourth) and the University of Leeds (sixth), which rises from ninth position in 2015.

In joint seventh place are the University of East Anglia and Newcastle University, just ahead of the University of Cambridge at number nine.

Keele University takes 10th place in our poll, up from 21st last year, thanks to consistently high scores for its teaching, academic staff and campus.

The fact that Keele’s library is also rated one of the best in the country is no surprise to Fiona Cownie, the university’s pro vice-chancellor (education and student experience). “We often have more than 500 students in the library at midnight, which is a lot for a university with a student body of around 10,000,” says Cownie.

Many students now view the library as a key social hub on campus, using its areas for group academic work. It also hosted many Exam Plus events to support students during the exam season.

“We gave out free fruit and water at the library and had chill-out activities available, such as massage, yoga and a puppy-petting room,” Cownie explains. “It’s another way in which students feel supported and part of the Keele community.”

Queen’s University Belfast (which is in joint 12th place with Cardiff University) is another institution to rise significantly in our poll of 15,290 undergraduates, up from joint 31st two years ago and from 83rd place in 2010.

As in previous surveys, campus universities do well in our rankings overall, despite top 10 finishes by Sheffield, Leeds and Newcastle, three of the UK’s best-known civic universities.

Five of our top 10 institutions are campus ­universities; in addition, Falmouth University (11th), the University of Exeter (joint 14th), the University of Nottingham (joint 18th) and the University of Reading (20th) are other campus institutions that are popular with students.

Several modern universities feature in this year’s top 30, including Nottingham Trent University (17th) and Northumbria University (joint 18th), with Edge Hill University at joint 23rd and the University of Chichester in 25th place.

The most-improved universities are also post-92 universities, led by Southampton Solent University, which rises 36 places to joint 54th spot, and the University of Derby, up 34 places to joint 47th.

Many London universities are at the lower end of the table, occupying 12 of the bottom 20 places. These include historic universities such as the London School of Economics (110th), as well as more modern institutions such as Kingston University (108th) and the University of Greenwich (111th).

Imperial College London is the only university in the capital to make the top half of our rankings, at joint 54th, with those in London doing poorly on accommodation and the feeling of community atmosphere on campus.

The continuing popularity of London as a study destination (around 16 per cent of domestic ­undergraduates choose to study there) may surprise many observers in light of these poor scores.

With universities no longer bound by strict student number controls, many institutions took the opportunity to expand undergraduate levels ­significantly this year – some taking 20 per cent more than in the previous year. So how will they maintain the overall student experience while admitting many more students?

Some institutions appear to have managed to do this successfully: Keele’s acceptances rose by almost 20 per cent last autumn, but its scores rose ­nonetheless. And the University of East Anglia remains in our top 10 while increasing acceptances by about 30 per cent.

Other vice-chancellors are more wary of a rapid expansion in student numbers, preferring a more gradual growth strategy, despite the financial ­incentives on offer.

“We do not want to upset something that works here just because we can make some money out of it,” says Loughborough’s Allison.

jack.grove@tesglobal.com

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