Student Experience Survey 2018: Higher education sector still raises the bar in a turbulent year

Despite a bumpy 12 months for universities, students continue to be satisfied with campus life, finds Sara Custer

March 22, 2018
Vet students
The Royal Veterinary College out performs all other London institutions with students on its veterinary nursing and biosciences courses among those very satisfied with what their institution has to offer

The past 12 months have seen a public outcry over vice-chancellors’ salaries, the formation of a new regulator, a freeze on tuition fees and results from the first teaching excellence framework. However, scores from the 2018 Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey suggest that despite the tumult institutions have faced, students continue to be satisfied with their overall experiences on campus.

Based on our survey of more than 20,000 undergraduates, carried out by youth research agency YouthSight, 2018’s results underscore what students value: high-quality lecturers and staff, good campus facilities and a community atmosphere. They also affirm the long-standing trend that London experiences continue to be rated worse than those outside the capital.

“In our research, students consistently tell us that the most important aspects of university life are teaching quality and fitting in, so having good friends,” says Ben Marks, YouthSight’s managing director. “They are less likely to spontaneously mention the students’

More on the 2018 Student Experience Survey

Student Experience Survey 2018: the results
Student Experience Survey 2018: methodology 

Student Experience Survey 2018: ‘At over £9K a year, is a degree worth it?’ 
Student Experience Survey 2018: Protecting free speech while keeping students safe 
Student Experience Survey 2018: Loughborough says its students’ ‘get-up-and-go’ attitude is the key to its success 
Student Experience Survey 2018: Staffordshire’s 24-hour campus that works for all 
Student Experience Survey 2018: Keeping mental health in mind 
Student Experience Survey 2018: the rising stars of higher education 

The University of Loughborough tops our poll again this year (having placed first in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2016), owing to top scores in measures including campus facilities and social experience. Loughborough is also the university whose students are most likely to recommend it to others – perhaps the most coveted title of all (although this factor does not impact institutional scores in the SES).

In the number two spot is last year’s winner, Harper Adams University. Meanwhile, the University of Leeds improved one position from 2017 to finish third and the University of Bath reappears in the top 10 at number four. The University of Sheffield (5th), University of Oxford (6th), the University of Surrey, Newcastle University and the University of Exeter (all joint 7th) follow in the top 10.

Coming in at joint 10th with St Andrews, the University of Chichester makes its first appearance in the top 10, achieving high scores for teacher relationships, small-group tuition and quality of staff.

The revelation by THE in January 2017 that the average cost of remunerating Russell Group v-cs rose by almost 6 per cent, compared with 2015-16, was followed by months of criticism from the government and sector bodies alike, culminating in the decision by the country’s highest-paid vice-chancellor, Dame Glynis Breakwell at the University of Bath, to announce that she was stepping down.

Despite vice-chancellor pay packages increasing 3.2 per cent in 2016-17 according to THE ’s 2018 v-c pay survey, the SES results suggest that universities continue to meet students’ expectations.

However, Bath’s performance in our poll shows that, despite the furore, it offers students a valuable experience. The university climbed back into the top 10 this year, ranking fourth in the overall scores and the student recommendation composite. Three-year averaging of overall scores, released for the first time in this year’s SES, shows that Bath improved from an average of 78 between 2009 and 2011 to an average of 82.9 over the three years from 2016 to 2018.

Two other universities with steep executive pay packages (according to the same 2018 v-c pay survey) appear in our poll’s top 10: Sheffield and Exeter. Both also receive high marks for student recommendation, placing 7th and 6th respectively.

Appearing alongside them on the list of highly paid managers were the University of Nottingham and the University of Birmingham, which ranked 16th and joint 29th respectively in overall SES rankings, and 7th and 16th for student recommendations. “Undergraduates are looking for a simple cocktail of good teaching and positive social experience. V-c pay isn’t going to have a huge impact on that,” Marks says, while acknowledging that it could have an effect over a longer term.

Still, other institutions with high v-c remuneration did not fare as well in our SES results, including King’s College London (joint 60th), Imperial College London (64th), Birkbeck, University of London (76th) and the London School of Economics (104th). This performance is likely to be down to other factors, though, and aligns with a trend observed in the survey that London-based institutions consistently perform worse than their regional counterparts.

The reasons for this are not easy to determine, according to Marks, who says it is a phenomenon seen in other sector rankings as well. “Speculatively, it could be to do with relatively higher levels of students choosing to stay living at home, which could, in turn, mean they invest less in the student experience,” he says. “Also, London institutions enjoy high numbers of overseas students, many of whom will be investing in the ‘London experience’ perhaps as much as the student experience.”

The Royal Veterinary College has historically been the best-performing London institution in our survey, improving its overall score from 67 in 2011 to 81.1 in 2018. This year, it moves up to joint 12th place, having ranked 18th in 2017. It is trailed by its city peers, St George’s, University of London and King’s College London, both sitting in joint 60th place.

David Church, deputy principal and vice-principal of student experience at the RVC, says the institution began putting students “at the heart of everything we do” in 2010 by investing in learning facilities and well-being as well as involving students in institutional decisions. “There were people over 50 making decisions who wouldn’t have a finger on the pulse of what’s important for 18- to 25-year-olds,” he says. “We surveyed students on everything from colours to the use of spaces to get them engaged in telling us what they wanted.”

The institution has also appointed a vice-principal and an associate dean for student experience, increased small-group teaching and changed the curriculum to be more flexible, recording and posting all lectures online. “Students are increasingly independent learners and we wanted to encourage them to be self-directed,” says Church. “We never insist on attendance [at lectures]. It allows students to save money on the commute into central London for a 9am class, for example.”

It is also interesting to see how our survey scores compare with results from the TEF, which takes into account metrics on teaching excellence, learning environments and graduate employment. Gold awards were given to all of our top 10, except for the University of Sheffield and the University of Chichester, which both received silver. In the top 20, gold awards are common except for the University of York and Durham University, which were each awarded silver and finished joint 18th, alongside the gold award-winning University of Cambridge.

With the exception of Sheffield (and Queen’s University Belfast, which didn’t participate in the framework) all of the top 20 in our three-year trends index were awarded gold. “We attribute this impressive result to the fact that most of the indicators in the TEF are addressed directly or indirectly within the SES,” says Marks. He cites the example of dropout rates, measured by the TEF, which, while not directly addressed by the SES, are accounted for in ratings on the social experience, facilities, welfare, accommodation and security. “All will be related to dropout rates, to some extent,” he says.

It is unlikely that the higher education sector will ever be far from a scolding headline but, if the SES data show anything, it is that universities continue to deliver on what students value most.

“What we find surprising is that the long-term trend across every three-year rolling composite index score rises,” observes Marks. “We think that indicates universities are generally doing a good job at raising the bar slightly faster than expectations rise and the sector should be commended for this.”

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