With Queen’s University Belfast breaking into the top 10 of the Student Experience Survey for the first time, and Ulster University being named most improved university of the year, Northern Ireland’s higher education institutions are currently flying high.
Against a population of just under 2 million, their performance is all the more remarkable because, over the past six years, both institutions have experienced far lower student satisfaction scores. In the 2011 survey, QUB was in 79th place, with an overall score of 71.1 (against 81.9 in 2016), while as recently as 2015, Ulster was in the 91st spot, with a total of 70.9 (compared with 76.3 in 2017).
QUB has seen enormous improvements in its academic performance since 2011. Satisfaction with staff has risen from 5.1 to 5.9, and the rating for high-quality lectures has also jumped from 5.4 to 5.9 – the result of a rolling programme of strategic educational projects, including the “student-centred timetable”. The programme, begun in 2011, sought to analyse teaching provision and help students feel more closely allied with the schools in which they were learning.
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Claire Baxter, head of Eventus, the team that coordinates QUB’s conferences and events, said the timetabling scheme aimed to ensure that all students were taught “close to ‘home’, increasing interaction and creating a stronger sense of identification with their school”. “The project involved individual consultation with each school, the movement of a designated set of teaching rooms to central management and the implementation of an effective zoning of teaching method for the creation of the academic timetable,” she says.
This saw each school rate teaching rooms on a green, amber and red scale, where green rooms were located in, or within the immediate vicinity of, the school’s main buildings. “A target of timetabling 95 per cent of teaching into schools’ green zones was set in 2012 and has been consistently beaten year on year, with 98 per cent of teaching in green for the 2015-16 timetable,” Baxter adds.
Satisfaction with industry connections has climbed from 5.1 to 5.9 between 2011 and 2017, a result of the creation of the university’s Employer’s Forum. Established in 2012, this internal body maintains links with businesses seeking to recruit QUB’s graduates. The two-way link means that students are taught what employers are looking for, to make the process of equal value to both groups.
The library at QUB has seen the largest boost in its score since 2011, rising from 5.5 to 6.5 out of 7 as a result of a heavy investment in infrastructure over a number of years. In 2013, the McClay Library won a prestigious Sconul Library Design Award for outstanding architectural design and facilities. The judges noted that it “was a landmark building marrying contemporary and classic design”, which more than doubled the number of students using the building.
The increase in satisfaction rates is also down to excellent customer service, which is recognised by Elizabeth Traynor, the assistant director of library services. “Since library services first received Customer Service Excellence accreditation in March 2015, we have pursued a successful strategy of continuous service improvement,” she says.
“This has involved making customer engagement and consultation integral to service development and focusing on how meeting the requirements of the standard will bring tangible benefits to library users.”
David Jones, pro vice-chancellor for education and students, says that QUB’s overall success has been the result of strategic long-term investment that has led to “life-enhancing opportunities”. “Over the past 10 years, we have invested £350 million in our campus on state-of-the-art facilities and buildings to ensure we provide a world-class student experience,” he says.
Over at Ulster University, which saw its overall score improve more than any other institution in our annual poll, the enhancements have been underpinned by increased investment, too.
In 2014, Ulster secured a £150 million loan from the European Investment Bank, which fed into a wider £250 million project to consolidate its Jordans -town and Belfast campuses in the capital by 2018. A further £55 million will be spent upgrading its Magee and Coleraine outposts.
“As a university that is leading in widening access to higher education, it is important that our students enjoy facilities that match their aspirations,” said Richard Barnett, vice-chancellor at the time.
Indeed, in the only attribute that declined between 2011 and this year’s survey – good sports facilities – Ulster is already addressing its few remaining weaknesses, pumping £5.1 million into a state-of-the-art sports complex at the university’s Coleraine campus, which opened last month.
Across the academic experience composite of the survey – comprising student satisfaction with staff, lectures and courses – Ulster has seen massive improvements. The university has introduced a raft of incremental changes to its teaching practices in response to feedback from students.
There is also a strong commitment to teaching at the university, with staff rewarded for excellent levels of achievement. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency in 2016, Ulster is in the top 20 universities overall and the top seven for the percentage of senior fellows of the Higher Education Academy working there.
The library at Ulster has also seen rising satisfaction levels, something it puts down to personalising the service offered to users in both the physical and virtual space. Library staff actively work with students in the classroom, giving talks on the best use of services and engaging with individual students to make the most of their resource.
The institution has also allied with the students’ union to enhance the societal experience. Many departments actively encourage students to engage with societies, volunteering and extracurricular work – a good example is the Enactus Society, a student group that works on a range of social enterprise and community projects.
Paddy Nixon, Ulster’s vice-chancellor and president, welcomes recognition as the most improved university. “The experience we give our students is second to none and this award acknowledges that fact on a national level,” he says.
“It demonstrates our commitment to providing a transformative educational experience.”