Student Experience Survey: Great expectations

In trying to attract students, institutions must be clear about what they are offering - and careful not to make promises they can't keep. Jack Grove reports

April 26, 2012

"Students should be more demanding - and academics should demand more from students."

That statement from Paul Ramsden, visiting professor at the Institute of Education, University of London, set the tone for a robust round-table discussion, hosted by Times Higher Education, about the student experience that featured representatives from all parts of higher education.

Undergraduates and postgraduates, sixth-formers, academics, policy experts and leading figures from university watchdogs offered their views on what the information from our survey meant for applicants, students and universities.

Do our data help students pick the right university for them? Are undergraduates always best placed to determine the quality of their institution? And how can universities learn from their students' views?

Lisa Benn, who hopes to study geography at the University of Nottingham in September, said it was right to consider information beyond the academic experience.

"Teaching is the most important thing for students - that is why we are going to university," she said. But good accommodation and an enjoyable campus atmosphere is just as valued, she added.

"It is the first time you are moving away from home. You have to live there for a whole year, so you expect everything to be of a high standard."

Jim Dickinson, director of policy and delivery at the National Union of Students, stressed that it was vital to tailor the student experience to individuals because different types of students had different priorities.

"If you ask someone who has just left home for the first time what is important to them, their answers will be completely different from [those of] a postgraduate studying part-time, who is perhaps worried about the quality of his course or speed of marking."

But while different students might rate some factors more highly than others, they were united in their hatred of one thing, Dickinson stated. "People want what they are promised," he said. "If a university said it would fix the heating and, when I turn up on Saturday morning, it's not working, then I am going to be annoyed all day."

Rob Behrens, head of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, which deals with student complaints, felt it was vital to meet basic expectations. "Universities need to concentrate on what they have promised their students, rather than marketing to applicants. There needs to be responsible marketing of universities."

Matthew Kitching, membership services manager at Bucks New University's students' union and a part-time master's student at Birkbeck, University of London, made the point that hidden course costs were a major annoyance.

"The angriest students are those who have paid high tuition fees but find that certain costs were not included in the fees - for instance, the textiles student who has to pay for materials for their end-of-year show. Being clear about costs would go a long way to improving student satisfaction."

Another issue that sparked debate was the impact of this autumn's tuition fee increases, up to a maximum of £9,000 a year. Should students who pay more expect more from universities? Or should they receive the same deal from universities, given that institutions' financial resources are largely the same as in previous years?

Craig Mahoney, chief executive of the Higher Education Academy, which champions teaching in the sector, thought that the fee rise would help to focus universities' attention on teaching rather than research.

"Every university in this country, even Oxford, gains a huge amount of its income from teaching, so teaching should be a priority," he said.

More information about universities, such as that provided by our survey, was useful in holding institutions to account in the new era of higher fees, added Anthony McClaran, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, which monitors academic standards.

"You cannot reduce quality or student experience to [a simple measure of] contact hours. Some students have said they did not have enough, while others claimed that they were excessively overloaded and spent too much time in the laboratory.

"But to say contact hours are not an issue is wrong."

Students' desire to comment on university performance could not be suppressed and should be embraced, he added.

"It is part of a much more general phenomenon, where people want to have their say on the services they are using."

Behrens agreed. "Higher fees will exacerbate what is already happening," he said. "It is a revolution marked by the decline of deference and an increasing need for students to assert their rights."

Although the widespread public discussion of premium-priced tuition fees might lead some to believe that fees are the only thing on students' minds, Dickinson said that was not the case. It has obscured some other very urgent problems that students face - rocketing rents, higher costs of living and diminished government support for those in study, he said.

The problem of inadequate support was echoed by Charlotte Richer, a part-time Open University student and QAA reviewer. It meant that students could not maximise their time at university by enjoying sports activities, volunteering or taking summer internships, she said.

"If you are taking on part-time work to fund your studies, you can't sit on student committees - things that employers are looking for.

"If you're working in a supermarket in the summer, you can't do internships to make you more employable."

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