A small ritual demonstrates Staffordshire University’s commitment to putting students first, according to vice-chancellor and chief executive Liz Barnes. “At the end of every meeting, we now finish with a question: what have we done for students today? This takes us back to where our focus should be,” she explains.
In the 2018 Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey, Staffordshire’s overall score was 74.7 – a 4.1 percentage point rise on last year, making it the most improved institution based on aggregate scores. Students ranked it highly for offering a good relationship with teachers, providing fair workloads and small tuition groups.
Over the past three years, it has also shown a marked improvement for its links with industry and high-quality facilities. “Of course, the buildings are important,” adds Barnes, “but the importance of a university lies in its people.”
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To maintain this improvement, Staffordshire keeps a close eye on what it calls the student journey – 66 per cent of its students live at home (compared with a national average of 33 per cent) and the majority fit into a category Barnes describes as “jugglers”, managing study around other commitments, such as family or part-time jobs (34 per cent are mature students).
“We’re trying to get underneath what they need from us – we’d like a ‘sticky campus’ that encourages people to stay longer, even if they do live at home,” she says. This involves developing learning communities above and beyond what happens in the classroom and ensuring students can get access to facilities 24/7. “Mature students often come in at the weekend when their partner is at home looking after the family, for example,” says Barnes.
Student retention has historically been a challenge but, again, the university is monitoring its “leaky points” and acting on them accordingly.
Getting induction right for a variety of audiences is part of that, adds Barnes: “Over the past two years, we’ve had quite a lot of leaks during induction as it’s a difficult transition phase, so we’ve extended it beyond the first two weeks. We’re also thinking about whether students who live at home should come and spend some time living on campus during induction to get to know the university and each other more.” In addition, Staffordshire sends out a message to all students over Christmas – another common dropout period – to ensure they know support is available.
When Staffordshire moved to a new main campus in Stoke-on-Trent, it was important to engage with students about how they would use facilities, and also employers, who could advise on the latest technologies. “We have been lacking in social spaces for students, so we’re drawing up a masterplan for how we develop facilities where students can walk out of taught sessions and carry on their learning, moving away from more traditional classrooms and lecture theatres, bringing smaller groups of students together,” says Barnes. Reflecting its tagline “the connected university”, it’s also crucial that these facilities are open to the community.
Last year, Staffordshire ranked joint first in the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey for employability and 97.5 per cent of students who graduated from Staffordshire in 2017 are employed or in further study. Barnes attributes the university’s successful outcomes for graduates to its close links with industry, locally and globally. She explains: “Bearing in mind we’re in a low-economy area, we’re doing really well; businesses are engaged in designing the facilities, the teaching, the assessment.”
One Stoke-based employer, parcel delivery company DPD, set up a “hackathon” for students to consider challenges and opportunities around electric vehicles, and three teams were invited to work with DPD on future projects. Internationally, Staffordshire sends out a number of engineering students every year to Airbus in Germany, and is looking at fundraising mechanisms to support students to spend time overseas for work or study.
A growing consideration in terms of student experience for Staffordshire comes from the fact that it is the biggest provider of higher and degree apprenticeships within universities, and Barnes expects this to expand further over the next five years. “There is work to be done around what apprentices need while on campus and how we help them to stay engaged with us when they’re back in the workplace,” she says.
Whether the target student is an apprentice or postgraduate, the introduction of the teaching excellence framework has placed the on-campus and learning experiences front and centre for universities, Barnes concludes.
“With the TEF, student experience has come to the fore. We’ve got to get the teaching right – our research informs our teaching and we always ensure there are links between them,” she says. “Like many universities, we have been through the stage where we focused on processes and systems, and now we’re bringing it back to the student.”