The news that Loughborough University has regained the number one spot in the Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey is greeted with glee by its ebullient vice-chancellor, Robert Allison. The institution previously topped the survey in 2016 and was second (to Harper Adams University) in 2017.
“I am absolutely delighted,” says Allison. “But I am delighted principally for the staff and the students here, because I know it will mean so much to them.”
With its reputation for athletic success and sport-related study, it is unsurprising that Loughborough scores well for its sporting facilities. However, the East Midlands university is also outshining other institutions in areas that aren’t down to having state-of-the-art gym equipment or a £6 million pool. Loughborough holds the top spot in a number of other survey measures, such as societal experience, community atmosphere, campus environment and the quality of its student support and welfare.
More on the 2018 Student Experience Survey
Student Experience Survey 2018: the results
Student Experience Survey 2018: methodology
Student Experience Survey 2018: Higher education sector still raises the bar in a turbulent year
Student Experience Survey 2018: Protecting free speech while keeping students safe
Student Experience Survey 2018: Staffordshire’s 24-hour campus that works for all
Student Experience Survey 2018: Keeping mental health in mind
Student Experience Survey 2018: the rising stars of higher education
Student Experience Survey 2018: ‘At over £9K a year, is a degree worth it?’
What is the magic formula? “What we have absolutely got here is a group of committed people who want the university to do well,” says Allison. There is a “can-do” attitude that prevails, too. “In my five years here, we have never come up against a problem where people have said ‘We can’t do this’.”
One factor that might account for its success is that Loughborough endeavours to listen to its students. Each academic school or department has a student president and programme representatives. “They are really important,” says Allison. “What we say to them is that the university is responsible for setting the academic standards…but we will work with you around how you want the curriculum delivered. And that is no sop – we genuinely work with them. I and the pro vice-chancellor for teaching, every year, go and visit every school and meet with the programme presidents and programme representatives…they know that, right from the top of the university, this is important.”
Each school has a joint committee comprising staff and students. Allison explains that when students raise an issue, the departments either have to justify why something is the way it is or, more often, he says, the staff leaders ask “How are we going to work together to improve that for you?”. Recently, student feedback led the university to agree that every full teaching session would be recorded via lecture capture. “This is a really good example of how we responded to a student request,” says Allison.
As all universities that score highly on student experience know, enabling students to thrive beyond the lecture hall or tutorial room matters. “The umbilical relationship that we have with the students’ union is absolutely critical to our success,” says Allison. “For example, we pay the students’ union to run Student Voice, a confidential service that students can go to if they have a problem – that includes all of the things that can give students angst on both the academic and pastoral side.”
Although the university could run this welfare service itself, it chooses to pay the students’ union to do so, explains Allison, in order to let the students speak freely with their peers, who might have experienced similar issues, and to feel that they are being supported by an entity that is separate from the university. (Student Voice members don’t provide counselling but refer students on to the appropriate professional services.)
Allison is a hands-on vice-chancellor. He says that the best part of his day is walking across campus and meeting people, and listening “to what they are doing and how they’re contributing to the place”. He tries to meet students for lunch each week to hear about their university experience and says the type of person who will flourish at Loughborough is someone who is similarly keen to get involved.
With 120-plus societies, a highly successful Rag programme that raises about £1 million a year for charity, and a volunteering arm that enables students to work on local, national and international projects, there is plenty to get stuck into. Allison says he is honest with prospective students on open days. He tells them: “If you want to come here, you need to understand you have got the responsibility to take the place of the group that will be graduating next summer, and be as involved as they are.”
He adds: “We do our best to recruit students who are motivated, they have got the get-up-and-go attitude. It is not just about their degree, it’s about them recognising what they have got to give to the university, as well as take from it, while they are here.”
A day in the life...
Studies: English BA (third year)
Lives in: Private rented accommodation near the campus, with five other students
She says: “Campus feels like a small world and has everything you need on it”
8.45am: I arrive on campus early and head to the English department in Martin Hall, either for a tutorial or I’ll pop to the bistro café and get a coffee and something to eat. The building is newly refurbished and upstairs there are study spaces where you can either work individually or in a group. It also has a large theatre and a couple of performance studios.
12.30pm: I head to the students’ union where there’s plenty of choice for lunch: a Starbucks, Co-op or pop-up food stalls on the piazza. One of the (three) union nightclubs, Cognito, is open for sitting in to eat or to study. I usually spend an hour at the union and there are big screens up telling you about events or university news.
1.30pm: I might go to the library or back to Martin Hall to study. I study 9-5, so when I go home I can relax.
5pm: I head home for dinner with my five housemates (four study English, like me, and the other is a fine arts student).
7pm: Union clubs are open three nights a week, so I’ll often pop back to campus for a night out. Two or three evenings a week I’ll be at rehearsals for the performance societies – I’m currently in a play with the Shade Theatre.
11pm: Home and bed.
Studies: Mechanical engineering MEng (final year)
Lives in: Private rented accommodation
He says: “It’s a big university with a small university feel – it’s one big family”
- 6:45am: I wake up in my student house which I share with three guys who are also in the final year of their mechanical engineering degrees. On a lacrosse team training day, I’ll head to the Power Base gym at 7am.
- 8.45am: After a quick shower, I catch a free bus straight to my department’s main building, Wolfson School of Mechanical, Electrical and Manufacturing Engineering. I walk for 30 seconds and I’m in my 9am lecture.
- 9am-11am: In the second year, I had 20 hours of lectures and four hours of labs a week. This year we have 15, but I study from 9am to 6pm anyway. Lots of my lectures are recorded so we can log on and watch them again later.
- 11am-1pm: Another lecture, usually at Wolfson School or West Park Teaching Hub. We have so many facilities at our fingertips. We have five computer rooms in our department building that we can access 24/7. In the engineering applications lab, we have access to machining and fabrication equipment. We also have two 3D-printing classrooms.
- 1pm: For lunch, I’ll jump on the free bus to the students’ union. I sometimes use this time to make plans for the space society.
- 2pm-4pm: One module I’m currently doing is on project leadership for which I mentor six second-year mechanical engineering students. On Wednesday afternoons, you’ll find me in the STEMLab, a new £17 million facility. The ground floor has labs, machine shops and workbenches, and is where our space society does rocketry. We’ve been testing a see-through hybrid rocket engine and the technicians have been training us how to use the milling and lathing machines.
- 4pm-6pm: I’ll go to the library or a lab to study. The library is open 24/7 during exam season; otherwise, from 8am to 2am. My department is also open 24 hours so I can access study areas any time.
- 6pm: If it’s the day before a lacrosse match, we’ll have a team dinner. Otherwise, I’ll head home to relax with my housemates.
- 7pm: As a final-year student, I try to avoid mid-week nights out. That said, after a lacrosse game, we’ll reconvene at the union bar, and vote for the man of the match, who’ll get a free pint. Sometimes our social secretaries will organise a party at the union.
- 11pm: I’ll try to get to sleep by 11pm, but often it doesn’t happen. I’ll head to bed at 10.30pm and catch up with social media, and watch something on Netflix/Amazon Prime/YouTube.