Assessing the student experience
Once a year the journal Times Higher Education conducts and then publishes a survey of students in British universities, recording the criteria that students believe are important in assessing the quality of their experience and the performance of their institution in relation to these. The results are then compiled in the form of a league table, the most recent of which has just been published by the journal.
As with every survey and every league table, it is wise to enter a health warning or two. There will always be a margin of error, and in the case of each institution only a relatively small sample of the student body is involved. Also, a subjective experience on the part of a student may not necessarily translate into an objective statement of quality or the lack of it. All that having been said, the survey and the results from it can be used to gather some insights.
One interesting observation would have to be that while the results do not absolutely mirror university rankings produced in other league tables, they are not wholly incompatible either. So interestingly, research intensive universities on the whole appear to offer a better student experience than those that focus largely on teaching. Post-1992 universities – with a couple of exceptions, including the one I am about to join, RGU in Aberdeen (one of only two to be in the top 40, at 25) – do not do as well as older ones. Oxford and Cambridge, while showing up in the top 10, are not right at the top (they are at 6 and 4, respectively, out of a total of 113): that distinction goes to Loughborough University, for the second year running. The highest placed Scottish university is the University of Dundee (number 5), the highest placed Welsh institution is Bangor University (number 14), now led by ex Maynooth president John Hughes. Overall, the availability of good facilities, including good sports facilities, makes an impression on students, though ‘good teaching, enthusiastic staff and a well-structured course’ are seen as the most important.
In England surveys such as this may become an important selection tool for student applicants, who may balance the cost of degree programmes in the new tuition fee environment against student satisfaction recorded here. It is in any case right that universities should take seriously the impression they make on their students, and the level of satisfaction that these students feel. It is interesting also that students do not view what they find that differently from how it might be assessed in other processes. And finally, it is fairly clear and probably unsurprising that a well resourced institution will seem more attractive to students, as much as to anyone else.