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Student Experience Survey 2017: Expectations are high for learning resources

Students today demand more from their libraries than a draughty, silent hall policed by fearsome attendants – and institutions, it seems, are listening. Sanya Burgess reports

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Sanya Burgess

March 23 2017
Student studying in library


Since the introduction of fees, the expectations of students and parents have never been higher when it comes to learning resources. A draughty building, unimproved since its opening in the 1960s, and lacking modern texts and wi-fi, won’t be tolerated, and the message has got through to universities.

More on the 2017 Student Experience Survey

Student Experience Survey 2017: the results
Student Experience Survey 2017: methodology

Student Experience Survey 2017: analysis of the 2017 results
Student Experience Survey 2017: hear from students at the top institutions
Student Experience Survey 2017: down on the farm at Harper Adams
Student Experience Survey 2017: expectations are high for learning resources
Student Experience Survey 2017: Sheffield Union holds key to satisfaction
Student Experience Survey 2017: home comforts on campus
Student Experience Survey 2017: the shape of things to come in higher education

Students are more satisfied with libraries and their opening hours than with any other attribute in the Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey, giving them an overall score of 6.1. Since 2010, the universities of Keele, St Andrews, Reading, York and Lancaster have been some of the most improved. How have they risen to meet students’ demands?

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“Expectations have changed a lot, with students becoming much more overtly customers,” explains John MacColl, director of library services at the University of St Andrews, where the student satisfaction with libraries score rose from 4.9 in 2010 to 5.8 out of a possible 7 in 2016.

Although about a third of St Andrews’ students are Scottish and have their fees covered by the government, the rest are fee-paying. MacColl says this means that students now expect a comfortable library with long opening hours (8am-2am, seven days a week), a café on the premises and different noise-level zones in the building, with areas where students can talk, Skype or work in total silence.

It is a similar scene in England, as Julia Munro, head of university library and collections services at the University of Reading, explains: “The big change is fees and that has made expectations different and increased them.”

At Reading, whose score rose from 5.5 in 2010 to 6.4 in 2016, the library is open 24 hours a day during the week, and has more than 65,000 e-journals and 200,000 e-books. “The library remains important to students,” Munro says, adding: “Our selling point is that we have the study space, we have the information resources and [students can] find someone able to help, whether that is ‘I don’t know how to structure my essay’ or ‘I don’t understand how to find this book or electronic resource’.”

Paul Reynolds, librarian at Keele University, where the library satisfaction score rose from 5.6 points in 2010 to 6.6 in 2016, agrees with Munro that students expect more now and says that “libraries remain central to what universities are doing”.

Reynolds says: “They are paying high fees and they expect libraries to be open whenever they need to use them. One of the things that certainly gave us a huge boost in satisfaction levels in recent years was the move to 24/7 opening.”

Liz Waller, head of library and archives at the University of York, which has risen from 5.6 to 6.5 points between 2010 and 2016, believes funding is vital when trying to match student expectations.

“Funding is always a challenge because the appetite for content, books, journals and so on is insatiable,” she says. To ensure York’s library spend matches student appetite, Waller has put some of the money in the hands of the students. Its MoreBooks scheme asks students to suggest books for the library to buy. The library also encourages students to reserve titles if they are unavailable. If it has more than three reservations, the library will purchase an additional copy.

“It’s very much about using data and putting the money in the hands of the students. Their behaviour drives our spending,” Waller explains.

At Keele, more than 75 per cent of the library’s budget goes on e-resources. Reynolds explains: “One of the things we need to get across to students particularly is that just because it’s on the internet, it isn’t free. We deliver it and we spend most of our budget on doing that [so we need to] train students to make better use of it.”

One novel funding option is the model adopted at the University of Worcester, where The Hive is Europe’s first joint university and public library.

The £60 million project, which opened in 2012 after eight years of planning, has proved popular with the student body and local population, welcoming almost 100,000 people annually.

Judith Keene, university librarian, is uncertain whether such an ambitious project could be realised today as the funding streams available in 2004 wouldn’t be accessible now.

Students today expect modern buildings with 21st-century features. Reading University library was originally built in the 1960s and has been extended and improved upon, most recently during a partial refurbishment three years ago. As well as establishing a variety of learning environments through silent, quiet and collaborative study spaces, Munro says the need for electricity sockets was obvious.

“You only had to walk around the library and see where we had made improvements [previously] and had been able to put power because that is where the students would sit,” she explains.

It is now at the start of a major £40 million refurbishment, which will improve a range of facilities, including updating the lavatories and making the building more environmentally friendly.

The limited number of study spaces that libraries offer is a problem all universities face. “When you create a fantastic, vibrant study space for students, they will come and they will come in great numbers,” says Waller. “We have feedback that there aren’t enough study spaces so what we’re continually doing is flexing our estate to try to create space in different areas and different types of space.”

York has done this by relocating unpopular stock and any staff whose offices can be moved.

Following an extensive renovation at Lancaster University, Peter Maggs, director of library services, reports a 150 per cent increase in footfall since the work was completed early last year.

Despite the refurbishment work, space is still an issue, owing to “hogging”, which Maggs describes as a “towels-on-deckchairs phenomenon where people put their bags down and then wander off for hours”.

The university, whose score of 5.8 in 2010 has risen to 6.6 in 2016, has worked with the students’ union to create a “considerate working campaign” to alleviate the problem.

St Andrews shares the problem of seat hogging and is particularly pushed for space. The library was built to accommodate 3,500 students and now has to service almost three times that number. By moving books to a remote store and housing back-office staff elsewhere, the institution has eased the problem but it, too, seeks to remind students of the impact that hogging has on their peers.

St Andrews’ library team also frequently extends opportunities for student feedback and tries to be inventive. On Valentine’s Day, for example, it encouraged students to pen a love letter to the library.

York is trying a similar tactic. In feedback sessions, it became clear that, in certain areas of the library, some students were too hot while others were too cold. Waller’s team came up with the idea of offering blankets and leaving them in relevant areas.

Waller says her team’s link with the students’ union has contributed to the library’s success. “Their input and representation is invaluable in helping us plan,” she adds.

Universities should keep a keen eye on students’ satisfaction with their libraries, as Peter Maggs at Lancaster often finds parents and students are forensic in their assessment of the library on open days.

“It seems to me that the library is something seen as fundamentally a core part,” he says, adding that: “A good library, that is effective and supports teaching, learning and research, and offers a really innovative learning space, is something people see as central to the university.”

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