Meeting the challenge of heightened expectations: how universities can enhance the student experience

By Paul Marshall –

The passage of new tuition fee legislation in December 2010 will be marked for future generations as a turning point in the history of the UK HE sector. The merits of the withdrawal of the state from the blanket subsidy of undergraduate degree programs and the transfer of the costs to the student has been much discussed, debated, argued and indeed, rioted upon. These debates, however, have created a foggy cloud under which the wider debate over the fundamentally important long term vision for the delivery of the highest quality student experience, has somewhat been lost.

In its submission to the Browne Review, the 1994 Group argued that the primary concern was to maintain quality so that universities were able to: strengthen the economy, deliver novel solutions to major challenges through research, and develop a world-class highly skilled workforce. HEFCE’s Financial Sustainability Strategy Group, which reported in early 2009, concluded that the sector was already papering over the cracks in the delivery of the student experience. Its conclusion was that total student funding needed to increase by around 20%[1] to reverse the decline of provision. I share with the 1994 Group and HEFCE this fundamental belief, that universities need long-term sustainable funding to maintain the quality of the academic experience, meet students’ rising expectations and develop the highly skilled, well-rounded graduates that our nation needs. In the future, this quality can only be maintained by increasing funding. This means achieving and maintaining additionality on the current income level per student. I therefore support, as the only viable option, the government’s reforms to the graduate contribution system. However if we are to meet the requirements of taxpayers, students and employers, then simple additionality of funding is not enough. All universities must make a commitment to demonstrably enhance the student experience.

We need to think about what this means. ‘Student Experience’ is a wide-ranging term meaning different things to different kinds of students. An 18-year-old undergraduate or foundation degree student, living away from parents for the first time and discovering independence, has a very different experience of university to a 40-year-old masters student, living at home with partner and children, balancing a full-time job with part-time study. Both encounter a vastly different experience to that of a student from China, who is getting to know a new language and culture as well as new learning material. There is no such thing as a standard student, and in the future successful universities will be those that don’t just offer a standard student experience. They must be responsive, making sure that every student encounters university life on the terms that best meet their own particular expectations.

There are three levels to this type of responsive student experience.

First, at application. The learning experience begins well before university for each prospective student. It’s up to all universities to recognise this and make sure that the process of choosing, and applying for courses is backed up with solid information, advice, and guidance. Transparency over contact time, assessment criteria and teaching staff will contribute to realistic academic expectations, but a range of other information also needs to be made available to prospective students.

Enhanced information on graduate employment and earnings potential will encourage course choices that complement future career aspirations. The Destination of Leavers from HE survey is useful, but taken at just six months following graduation it does not form an accurate reflection of the overall impact of university on graduates. It also overlooks students choosing to go on to further study rather than entering the employment marketplace. Other measures must be developed to enhance information in this area. For example, the longitudinal version of this survey, as it is taken 3½ years after graduation, provides a more realistic picture of the careers graduates will have chosen. There is a need for this survey to be developed, enhanced and made more robust in the future, to avoid an over-reliance on the 6 month survey.

Beyond this, the application level of the student experience should provide a genuine insight into what life at university will be like. The National Student Survey is fundamental to understanding the undergraduate student experience and must continue. Building on existing practice where possible, surveys capturing the experiences of post-graduates should also be established or enhanced in the future.

The second level of the student experience is university life itself. Students paying higher fees will have increased expectations of facilities and academic quality, which universities should all work to meet. There is a clear link between levels and quality of support, facilities and resources on offer to students, and how satisfied they are with their experience at university. Potentially working alongside the private sector, improvements to a university’s physical infrastructure are a key area in which to enhance the student experience. Long-term efforts should continue to be made across the sector to make physical infrastructure more student friendly.

There’s also an opportunity to add extra value. Universities should be partnerships between staff and students, with the student voice promoted and listened to. It is important for universities to make clear statements on the reciprocal relationships between students and universities in the development of knowledge and skills. A mature relationship is required with the NUS and local students’ unions to build mutual trust alongside sometimes challenging debates.

The final level of the student experience is graduate. Universities should make every effort to ensure graduates can flourish throughout their lives and careers. The graduate employment market is extremely competitive and it is crucial that students are well equipped during their time at university to progress and achieve their potential in the workplace. All graduates should leave university as mature, well-rounded individuals with clearly recognisable skills which will help them in employment.

One way of achieving this is through co-curricular activity and awards, run in parallel to degree programmes. These not only enhance the overall experience for students, but are routes through which to meet employers’ demand for skills obtained outside the academic curriculum.

Resourcing is clearly a key challenge to delivering this activity, especially to larger numbers of students. The Government should support for co-curricular activity by creating incentives for employers, such as schemes in which the government matches employers’ contributions – whether these are cash or in kind.

Finally, graduates should experience the very highest academic standards. High quality, engaging teaching, complemented by world class research, creates a culture of excellence which will serve graduates, their employers and ultimately the entire economy well, long into the future.

In his 2010 speech at the Conservative Party Conference, David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science made a clear commitment to future students.

We cannot expect people to pay more after they graduate if they have not been properly taught … I want to be able to look students in the eye and say they are getting a better education in return for the higher contribution they will make.

Although it is a time of enormous change in higher education, none of us should be fearful. We should take up the opportunity to enhance the already excellent promise of UK universities. Rising to the challenge of raised student expectations provides powerful motivation for institutions to enhance the student experience, empowering applicants, students, and graduates to ensure they reap the benefits of their investment.

We must directly respond to the challenge laid down by government. It is wrong to expect taxpayers and the students to invest without clear evidence of return. It is up to universities to make those returns clearer in the future.

Paul Marshall is Executive Director of The 1994 Group. He is responsible for the management of all Group activity including policy development, government liaison and stakeholder relations. He is also a member of the UCAS Qualification Information Review Reference Group, CMI Academy Employer Board and the Research Concordat Executive Group.

The 1994 Group brings together 19 world class universities and is one of the UK’s most influential voices on higher education policy. The Group works to promote excellence in research and teaching so that students can enjoy an outstanding learning experience and universities can contribute to social and economic wellbeing.

[1] Financial Sustainability Strategy Group, The sustainability of learning and teaching in English higher education, Feb 2006 Access via http://www.hefce.ac.uk/finance/fundinghe/trac/fssg/FSSGreport.pdf

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