This year’s survey on Student Academic Experience has just been published by HEPI and HEA.
Under the headlines outlined by Nick Hillman of HEPI:
‘Course quality depends on more than contact hours and class size, but students do care deeply about these issues. They are notably less satisfied when they have fewer than 10 contact hours and classes of over 50 students. They also care more about whether their lecturers are trained to teach and have professional expertise than whether they are active researchers.
‘The most striking new finding is that a whopping three-quarters of undergraduates want more information about where their fees go. Providing this is coming to look like an inevitable consequence of relying so heavily on student loans. If it doesn’t happen soon, it could be forced on universities by policymakers.
‘The survey also provides the best available evidence on student wellbeing. Students are less likely to regard their lives as worthwhile and are less happy than others. This suggests good support services, including counselling, should be a priority despite the impending cuts.’
Looking at the results in more detail, there are interesting variations in the responses that students make depending on discipline, and on the type of university that they attend, as well as some useful lessons for us to learn, so I’ve picked out some highights
Overall Academic Experience
The key reasons cited for experience not being as expected were around not putting in enough effort, poor organisation and lack of contact hours
From an institutional perspective we can tackle this by being really clear abou how much work we expect our students to do outside of scheduled classes. Module handbooks and guides need to provide explicit detail on a weekly basis of what work should be undertaken, both to match expectation, but also to explain to students that learning is not an act of passive consumption, but one of active participation
Information, reflections on course choice and value for money
34% of students from England think they have received poor, or very poor value for money, although students with more contact hours and who do more independent study are more satisfied with value for money. As above, we need to make sure we are making it really clear to our students what we expect from them, and what we provide them with.
Interestingly,the students who were the least satisfied about value for money were also those who were least aware of how their tuition fees were spent
Maybe the message is two fold – firstly institutions need to be transparent on how fees are spent, and why they need to cover more than just tuition, and secondly we should be using course level talks and handbooks to reinforce the message to our students on where, how and why we spend our money, and how they benefit.
Workload and Class Sizes
The variations in workload by subject area are not in themselves surprising, with the highest loads in medicine, creative arts and the sciences
What does jump out though is the total number of hours some students are studying.
For instance, if a student is studying 4 modules of 15 credits each across 12 weeks, plus 3 weeks for assessment, there would be 600 learning hours in total. This should equate to 40 hours per week. Again, the message for us might be about how to we set that expectaiton?
Quality of Learning and Teaching
In the survey students were asked to comment on three characteristics of teaching staff:
- whether they have received training in how to teach;
- whether they are currently active researchers;
- expertise in their professional or industrial field.
In the press articles that accompanied this publication, much was made of students stating that academic staff should have qualifications in teaching – overall 39% of students ranked this as the most important characteristic.
However, when we look at the different types of universities, this varies substantially:
For a million+ university such as us, then the most important characteristic that students are looking for is relevant industrial or professional experience, which might be expected with the vocational focus of this type of university. While the current government hasn’t proposed regulation of teaching in HE, it did commit to a “framework to recognise universities offering the highest teaching quality”. For us though, we need to focus on making sure our teaching staff have the opportunity to develop and maintain their professional expertise, as much as, if not more so, than gaining teaching recognition.
Finally on this – how would a student know if a member of teaching staff had a teaching qualification?
Students’ views on policy options
Students were asked how universities could save money. The answers are revealing:
Overwhelmingly students would prefer us to make savings on expenditure on buildings and sports and social facilities, whereas they would not want to see cuts to teaching hours and to student support facilities. This might conflict with what we need to do to recruit students in the first pace – the scale of building and refurbishment in the sector has been huge since the 2012 increase in fee. This might attract “customers” in the first place, however, it may not be what they really want in the longer term.
As always, this is an interesting addition to the canon of work on student experience. As we are in the process of analysing the results of our own internal Student Viewfinder Survey as well as looking at better ways of getting student evaluations, this may provide an indication of some of the questions we should be answering.
However, for me the key takeaways are:
- the need to communicate expectations of how we expect students to learn independently
- the linked need to make sure we explain how they will learn independently and take them to the point that they can do so successfully
- the need to provide good transparent information on where we spend money
- the need to support profession practice and for teaching staff to bring this into their teaching
- the need to make sure we fund what students really need.