Student Experience Survey: what matters most?

As annual tuition fees treble to a maximum of £9,000, Jack Grove looks at the elements that affect prospective students' choices

April 26, 2012



A buzz in the air: The central location of Sheffield's students' union means it is a hive of activity


Have higher undergraduate tuition fees in England put off young people from applying to university? Despite widespread concern about the effect of trebling the tuition fee cap to £9,000 this autumn, the answer appears to be "no".

There was only a relatively small drop (3.6 per cent) in the number of school-leavers applying to start university in 2012, after demographic factors were accounted for: older learners made up the bulk of an 8.7 per cent drop in UK applicants.

But did the prospect of a possible graduate debt of £40,000 alter young people's decisions on where to study and what course to choose?

"You don't have to pay it back immediately, so the size of the tuition fees was not a big factor," says Demi Christian, 17, a student at Lancaster & Morecambe College. "Anyway, all the courses I wanted to do cost £9,000.

"I couldn't really shop around for a cheaper degree, so I looked at other things: Was the accommodation good? Was it close to the city centre? Were the students friendly and did it have a good student support system? Could I get a part-time job while I studied?"

Hundreds of thousands of students have pondered the same questions over the past few months as offers start to arrive from universities.

The latest Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey gathers the views of more than 14,000 undergraduates on what matters most to them - from the quality of teaching to student life on campus.

Students were asked to rate 21 aspects of university life on a seven-point scale. Unlike other surveys, the criteria were chosen by students themselves.

Most students considered good teaching, helpful staff and well-structured courses to be important, but social and environmental aspects were also crucial for a fulfilling university experience.

Overall, students' satisfaction with universities increased, as it has done each year since 2008. Moreover, each element of experience - including accommodation, sports facilities, libraries and student support - showed an improvement, with scores for a good community atmosphere rising most sharply.

Top of the poll was the University of Dundee, which knocked Loughborough University into second place after five years in pole position.

The University of Sheffield, which along with Loughborough, was judged to have the best social life, as well as excellent accommodation and facilities, secured third spot in the table.

It was followed by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, whose unique tutorial systems undoubtedly helped them secure top marks for teaching quality and helpful, interested staff.

With many student rooms set around beautiful medieval quads, it is perhaps no surprise that Cambridge students were most pleased with their accommodation.

What is most important?

So what factors were most important for this year's applicants? It seems that a university's reputation for good teaching and providing strong job prospects heavily influenced students.

Kim Williams, 18, from Magdalen College School, Oxford, admits that a university's standing was an important factor in her decision about where to study psychology.

"I looked at the league tables and then cut off anyone outside the top 60," she says.

"My open day visits were also important. Some of the campuses were grand and well kept, which I liked, and people were friendly."

Aspiring airline pilot Chris Drury, 18, from Chelmsford, says that the industry links at his first-choice university, Loughborough, were the main reason for applying there.

"People who graduate from my course have good employment prospects," he says. "The university has a good reputation and is highly regarded, especially within industry."

In the survey, Loughborough University was deemed to have the best connections with business, followed by four others in joint second place - the London School of Economics and the universities of Bath, Cambridge and Surrey.

With a larger financial commitment at stake, it also seems that students wanted to be absolutely sure that their course was right for them and know where it would lead.

"Some courses had lots of individual learning, but I definitely wanted more structured, taught learning," says Amy Reid, 17, a pupil at St Brigid's School in Rhyl, North Wales, who has applied to study occupational therapy.

"Students are doing more preparation than ever," explains Mark Barlow, director of admissions, recruitment and marketing services at the University of East Anglia.

"You can tell because they often arrive on our open days with a long list of questions - and the right questions, too.

"They are doing a lot more research into courses and want to know about content - it's been a noticeable change over the past few years.

"Parents have also played an increasing role in helping their son or daughter to find a course that suits them. I think job prospects are in parents' minds more than anything else. If their child is going to borrow money for the tuition fees, they want to know they will get a return on it.

"The other money issue that most parents worry about is whether their son or daughter will drop out because they have chosen the wrong course. So parents play a crucial role, particularly when students start their search."

Paul White, pro vice-chancellor for learning and teaching at the University of Sheffield, has also noticed changes as higher tuition fees are introduced.

"There is much more interest in non-academic or semi-academic issues than in the past," he says.

"Students want to know about the Languages for All opportunities, international exchanges, our careers office and whether they can get involved in enterprise activities or the students' union.

"They are not only interested in the courses, but in enhancing their overall experience of university - it's about the 'whole person education'."

The survey also reveals that universities with strong students' unions tend to perform well in other areas, too.

The universities of Loughborough, Sheffield, Dundee, Leeds and Glasgow have some of the best students' unions in the UK, according to the results, while also figuring in the top 10 overall.

The top-ranked post-1992 higher education institution in the table - Teesside University, which finished joint 15th overall - also won particular plaudits for its union.

The connection is no accident, insists White at Sheffield, whose students' union took joint first place with Loughborough.

"We have a really strong students' union, right at the centre of our site. Although it is quite an elongated site, there is the feeling of a real hub of student activity based around the union and our 24-hour library.

"The students' union helps students to get involved in lots of things and belong to different communities within Sheffield, although these often overlap."

Some things are essential

The explosion of social media and other internet-focused activity over the past few years has not gone unnoticed by universities. Wi-fiaccess and the availability of PCs are increasingly a key issue for students assessing the quality of campus facilities and services.

But can universities harness social media to help foster that sense of togetherness and inclusion that makes for a happy time at university?

"Lots of departments are doing it here, and there are campus apps, too," says White.

"However, social media is user-generated - it's got to be a bit anarchic. If we try to run it as a university, it becomes a bit like Big Brother."

So how much influence does the internet have on students as they weigh up their options?

In fact, the traditional campus visits remain the main determiner for sixth-formers, according to students.

"It's a bit like internet dating," explains Sharon Smart, web marketing manager at Birmingham City University.

"You can narrow down what you think you want, but it is not until you actually meet that person or visit that institution that you know whether it's right for you."

Welcoming our report, Craig Mahoney, chief executive of the Higher Education Academy, adds: "Ensuring that we remain closely linked to what students think, and informed about what students want and need, is vital to the future success of higher education, particularly during times of great change.

"Surveys like this confirm that students are interested in and concerned about their personal learning experience, so it is absolutely crucial to ensure that students are kept at the heart of the system."


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