Student Experience Survey: Who's satisfied with their course?

Suzanne Bearne examines the reasons for a split between arts and science students

April 26, 2012

"Two plus two doesn't equal four in the arts," says Christine Lusk, director of student services at the University of St Andrews. She believes that the teaching methods and approach to study in creative arts subjects could explain why research has found that creative arts and design undergraduates have the most pessimistic view of their experience at university.

This was among the findings of the latest Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey, which revealed that students on law courses reported the most positive student experience, marginally higher than medicine, dentistry and undergraduates studying STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths). In contrast, creative arts and design, and business and administration students reported the least positive experience.

Lusk suggests that one reason why creative arts and business students reported below-average rates of satisfaction in the national survey is that their courses are more "self-oriented" than many others. "Artistic subjects can be very exciting, but you can find yourself on your own and it's very disorientating," she says. "You're expected to think in a more mature way."

In search of intangibles

Ann Caesar, pro vice-chancellor for education and student experience at the University of Warwick, says creative students may feel less satisfied than their peers due to the critical nature of their studies.

"One could say that creative arts, by the very nature of the work, are open-ended. There's no sense of completion, there are different approaches, results are not as tangible and progress isn't that visible."

Looking more closely at the results, the widest discrepancies between those at the top and the bottom of the rankings are for quality of accommodation, students' unions and sports facilities.

Why is this? For John O'Boyle, director of academic services at specialist arts college Ravensbourne in London, creative arts and design students are "naturally" more vocal in their feedback.

"Creative students are taught to be highly critical of everything around them, including their own experiences," he says. "I doubt that law students think, 'How might this law degree be different?'"

Caesar echoes O'Boyle. "In creative arts and design disciplines, having a critical approach is part of the training."

One theory as to why students of traditional courses such as STEM subjects, medicine and law scored a higher positive experience is that they are aware that such courses can lead to lucrative careers.

Lusk agrees that undergraduates studying subjects such as arts and business may be feeling more uncertain about their future than their peers.

"If you study a science subject you're more likely to know what you want to do after studying, compared with some other subjects," adds Lusk. "There's less uncertainty among science students about where they'll go after university and the value of their degree."

However, O'Boyle disagrees with the theory that those studying traditional subjects are more likely to find a well-paid job than some of their peers in business and arts. "There is a high proportion of law graduates who are unemployed," he adds.

This worry about future employability ties in with statistics from the Universities and Colleges Admission Service, which found that the total number of UK-based applications dropped by 8.7 per cent for 2012-13, when tuition fees will rise to an average of £8,393 a year.

Ucas found that applications in subjects that traditionally lead to well-paid professions such as science, technology and maths dipped just 2.5 per cent, while applications to arts and social sciences dropped the most, with a 13.7 per cent fall. And the institution that recorded the sharpest dip was the University for the Creative Arts, which recorded a 30 per cent drop in application numbers for 2012-13.

However, despite business students in the survey being among the least positive about their experiences, Ucas found that institutions offering business-related courses - including some leading private providers such as ifs School of Finance, which experienced a surge of 119 per cent in applications - were among the biggest winners.

YouthSight, the research group that conducted the survey, notes that there are few large, generalist, modern institutions in the top 30 - which often focus on business and administration and on creative arts and design courses - which could be a reflection of the course biases offered by modern versus more traditional universities.

However, as Caesar says, there is ultimately "no absolute definite answer" as to why the experiences of students in different disciplines should vary to such an extent.

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