'We must focus on students as learners'

HEA chief executive says that inspiration not consumerisation is key to university experience, says Rebecca Attwood

May 22, 2008

Resisting treating students as consumers and fostering their sense of being part of "a community of learners" is key to a quality student experience.

So says Paul Ramsden, Higher Education Academy chief executive, who is leading a government review into challenges facing the sector in the next ten to 15 years in improving this experience.

"I believe that the UK is very strongly placed in terms of performance vis-a-vis the rest of the world," he said. "The National Student Survey says that 82 per cent are satisfied, we know we've got higher completion rates than most other countries despite the massive increase in participation and most surveys of graduates suggest they think courses are more relevant than they are elsewhere in Europe."

But he warned that there was no room for complacency. "To keep ahead of the international competition and attract students from around the world we've got to make sure we produce graduates who can be world leaders," he said.

"What makes graduates really world class is that independence of thought and capacity to solve new problems. That comes from a collaborative environment where academics and students are working together. It doesn't come so easily from an environment where students are simply positioned as consumers."

Students' priority is top-quality teaching, he said. "That's what they remember - the inspirational lecturers, the knowledge they gained, the sense of empowerment it gave them."

The HEA is running an online survey that has already had 500 responses, and Professor Ramsden is consulting university mission groups, the HEA's network of pro vice-chancellors and bodies such as Universities UK's student experience group.

Professor Ramsden has led the HEA since 2004. In his previous post as pro vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney, Australia, he worked to improve student satisfaction. He was instrumental in developing an Australian course experience questionnaire upon which the authors of the UK National Student Survey drew.

"We are lucky in the UK to have a body like the HEA that is focused on improving the student experience," Professor Ramsden said.

He believes the HEA's network of 24 subject centres, which support teaching in different disciplines, is unique in the world and puts the academy in a strong position to contribute to the debate on the student experience.



"A world-class system of higher education is one where teaching excellence is the norm," said Universities Secretary John Denham when he launched seven reviews of UK higher education this year.

But evidence from a series of government-led "student juries", he said, "raised issues about the quality of teaching and employment prospects; accommodation; financial support; information, advice and guidance; and the way diversity is valued and addressed on campus.

"If we don't address these concerns - if students do not feel they are getting value for money - we will damage our reputation as a prized destination for international applicants.

"Similarly, the public will not endorse this Government's continued and unprecedented investment in the sector if they also question universities' ability to deliver increasing value for money."

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