Changing student expectations

By Jamie O’Connell –

The growing cost of higher education the world over means that the motivations for attending and the expectations of the service received are changing.

In the past year two major events have happened to profoundly influence UK higher education (HE) policy, the impact of which won’t be fully felt by students until 2012.

Firstly a Coalition Government, led by the Conservative party, was voted in to power in April 2010. The Conservatives have looked to aggressively reduce the nation’s budget deficit and cutting back on public spending has been one of the major tactics deployed. Cuts to the English higher education budget of 40% over four years were announced in a spending review on 20 October 2010.

Secondly in October 2010 an independent review conducted by Lord Browne into the future funding of HE in England was published. The ‘Browne review’ made recommendations for universities to be able to set their own tuition fee limits with no cap. The intention was that the market would dictate who is happy to pay what.

The government embraced the majority of the recommendations in the Browne review with some amendments. From 2012 English universities will be able to charge up to £9,000 per year for undergraduate courses, keeping the cap but raising it from its current level of £3,290. This was backed by Parliament in December 2010 for England, with other UK nations watching developments closely.

The hole that universities have found in their budgets will be filled by student fees. A student loan from Government will cover these increased tuition fees, one that will be paid back upon graduating and securing work that pays above £21,000 a year.

The rise in fees will lead to a change in student expectations and crucially, for universities, this will also change the criteria on which students evaluate which university and course to attend.

What expectations do students have?

Drop out rates in the UK are at about 8.6%, usually because student expectations of what university will be like are found to be different from the reality they experience when they get there.

When asked in a straw poll on The Student Room ‘Why do you want to go to university’, three areas were identified, they were:

  • A desire for the ‘student experience’ and independence
  • A desire to learn and study something they are passionate about
  • An expectation that university will lead to a good, well paid job

The weight given to those three factors will be different for everyone, some want to go to university solely to party, others have a specific vocation in mind and university is a very focussed means to that end. However it is my belief that the weighting of those priorities will change when the new tuition fees come into play from 2012.

The student experience

For many, attending university is their first taste of adult freedom. Confidence and life skills come from moving out of the family home, cooking for yourself and managing a budget.

It is also a great opportunity to meet other like-minded students from diverse backgrounds, people you would never get to meet and learn from in any other situation. Beer is cheap, there are parties, social clubs and communal living – university is fun!

But how much fun will be had when students are paying up to £9,000 a year for the privilege?

Students are going to be acutely aware that they need to make the most of their time at university and there will be more of a focus for all students on performing well academically, both as a self-imposed pressure and inevitably also from parents. In addition, research conducted by The Student Room in December 2010 shows that 80% of prospective students anticipate having to work in a part-time job when they attend university in light of the rise in fees.

This means that the ‘student experience’ and the fun of attending university could be compromised.

Technology is also changing the student experience. There was a time when students going to university would all but lose contact with their school friends from their home town and contact with family would be limited. In the age of social networking and mobile communication young people will remain in contact continually with their friends, those that stay in their home town to work and those that disperse to other universities. This can be a positive thing for students, ensuring that they keep those relationships. However this level of contact with existing friends could act as a substitute for making new contacts. And when times get tough, when revision bites and when a student is feeling lonely at university there will be a strong pull back to their home town and familiar faces.

Students that have traditionally looked to university for ‘the experience’ may now look closer to home. To their friends that have money in their pockets and who don’t risk losing girlfriends/boyfriends by moving away. It may also lead to studying nearer home, which can also lead to cost savings.

Quality of service

Currently the quality of service that students receive varies greatly between institutes. Depending on the course and institution, you may have wildly differing levels of contact time with a tutor/lecturer per week. In a world where students are paying top dollar for their education they will expect to get not only sufficient contact time, comparable to other institutions and courses, but also to get a good standard of tuition and personalised support from a tutor.

In addition to this students will expect to have quality support services available to them – careers guidance, welfare support, financial support, medical support and emotional support. Currently universities offer very mixed support services and with the cuts in university funding there won’t be money available in most cases to improve those services. It is entirely likely that there will be a shortfall in expectations here too.

From my own point of view I believe there is an opportunity for some elements of support services to be offered to secondary and higher education institutions on a national scale. This would ensure high quality and low costs by reducing duplication within institutions. Careers provision springs to mind for example.

Securing employment

Currently UK graduate unemployment is at a 15 year high of 20%. There are so many graduates and so few graduate positions that those within employment are often carrying out low-level work that they are greatly over-qualified for.

The expectation with increasing fees is that fewer people will go to university and those that do go will expect a relevant graduate position when they finish.

Remember graduates will need to start paying back their not-insignificant loans when they earn over £21,000. Not such a problem if you are on a management consultancy fast-track and anticipate earning £40,000 within a year. But for many, in the non-profit or creative arts industries for instance, whose salaries will languish around the £20,000-25,000 mark, paying back that loan will be a real burden. Some graduates will even be a reluctant to ever declare a salary over £20,000.

Will this also mean that students from low income families that choose to attend top fee-charging universities will only do so if they expect to attain a high-paying job? They will feel unable to study the arts for instance, knowing it may not lead to a top flight salary.

The impact of changing expectations on future applications

The concern with the rise in fees is that students from low income families will be deterred from attending. Alternatives, in the UK at least, are not always clear and schools are often ill-equipped to advise on those alternatives.

What is clear is that students who do decide to go to higher education will be choosing the course and institute with great care. The criteria for that selection changing in line with expectations.

Employability will became a key selection criteria, as will the quality of service. In recognition of this greater level of scrutiny that applicants will demand the UK government has said that every university must provide and make publicly available a ‘Key Information Set’, or KIS data set, for every HE course in the UK from summer 2012. This data set will allow students to easily compare courses on criteria such as contact time per week, employability stats, student feedback etc. UCAS will be publishing this data as a central source and it will be the quantitative information that students will use to evaluate their HE choices.

Traditionally UK students haven’t gone overseas in any great number to study. This is set to change. By broadening their options outside of the UK students will be able to find universities that still don’t charge fees, universities that offer high quality services and universities which will offer the chance to broaden your horizons while experiencing a new culture and learning a new language.

For the first time UK universities will be in competition with overseas universities for ‘typical’ UK students, not just ‘top-end’ students that may have always deliberated between Cambridge or Berkley.

In summary

In the UK, from 2012, universities will be reliant on the fees paid by students in order to provide core services. Therefore universities will need to become a lot more business and customer orientated. Meeting the expectations of their students and graduates will become crucial to their reputation and long term success.

From a students perspective employability and service quality will become the two main points of differentiation when choosing between comparably priced courses. Institutes will need to demonstrate their credentials in these areas and any additional industry links will be a bonus. Universities offering industry supported degrees for example will have an additional point of differentiation. Lancaster University already offers an Ernst & Young business degree; Anglia Ruskin offers a Harrods sales degree; and there are others. Taken to an extreme I would expect to see privatised, industry funded universities appearing. The feeling is that students intent on getting a job and a high quality experience would welcome this.

For some students looking to get the fulfilling ‘student experience’, studying overseas may become more attractive. And with student sights set on employment, many industries now have limited opportunities in the UK, making studying and then working overseas more appealing.

The application process for university will better support the changing expectations students have. KIS data, compulsory for every HE course in the UK from 2012, will make the process of choosing a university less hit and miss. Students will be able to easily narrow down their institute and course based upon what is most important to them. Overseas universities would do well to keep an eye on the changing criteria UK students will be using to evaluate HE decisions. If they wish to be considered as a credible alternative they will need to provide the same sorts of information about their courses.

Many students concerned with financing their degree will look for more flexible alternatives such as distance learning or part-time study. Universities and the HE system generally will need to adjust to this demand.

Higher education is changing, the world is getting flatter and students are justifiably becoming more demanding. How many universities already refer to students as ‘customers’? It’s possibly a scary and unwanted development for many, but none the less is quickly becoming a reality.

Jamie O’Connell is Marketing Director of The Student Room and is responsible for organisation strategy, ensuring the website offers the best possible service and functionality for all students and universities. He feels passionately about the role peer to peer support can play in education.

The Student Room is the world’s largest student web community, with 26 million page views and 3.9 million unique users each month. Members are predominantly young people aged 14-26 who offer support and advice to each other via forums on subjects ranging from study help, going to university and careers to health, music and relationships.

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