Posted tagged ‘student experience’

Student engagement: a tale of two campuses

February 18, 2014

I had occasion to visit two universities over the last two weeks or so. The first I am going to leave nameless, but I went there to listen to a public lecture. The event was at 6 pm, and the speaker was very good indeed, and I was pleased to have gone. But the audience for this was very small. There were perhaps 15 people in all, and as far as I could tell, none of them were students; indeed I’m not sure there were many staff either. Outside the venue the campus was eerily quiet; everyone had gone home.

Then last Friday I was a panelist at a student-organised event in Trinity College Dublin – the Trinity Economic Forum. The discussion in which I participated was about higher education policy, and the packed lecture theatre must have contained about 200 people. It was at 6.45 pm on a Friday night. Not only were the students there in number, they also participated actively.

The university experience is of course changing all the time. New demographic trends and new technology – to name just two factors – are making a difference to how students interact with the university, with their teachers and with each other. But I still believe that the experience of active engagement, both with people and with topics, as part of the learning process but outside its timetabled elements is a vital element of higher education. It is something we lose at our peril. We must all embrace change, but we must hold on to the goal of student engagement in whatever educational experience we aim for in the future.

Assessing the student experience

February 18, 2011

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.

Considering the student experience

February 22, 2010

In the course of this year we are likely, as a country, to adopt many of the decisions and policies that will determine the future of higher education. We will see the publication of the strategic review of higher education (which is chaired by Colin Hunt), and of the Innovation Taskforce. By one route or another we will get further clarity on the future funding and resourcing of higher education. We will see how various new strategic alliances will work in practice. We will see the outcome of Cycle 5 of the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions. Between all these various processes and decisions, a model of higher education may emerge, either deliberately, or more likely by stealth – because for example we cannot be sure that the funding model will be part of a joined up framework with the strategic review.

But it is possible that what all this may give us, either in a satisfactory manner or not, will be a new structural model for the sector. This may include details of how the institutions will relate to each other, how they are managed and governed, how they will run their budgets and where these will come from, and so forth. I am much less confident that, one year from now, we will have talked much about how all this affects the students and how any reforms will impact on the quality of their educational experience.

Students themselves are arguably playing along with this, by focusing on fees rather than on education. When the government announced in its revised programme that it would not reintroduce tuition fees this was celebrated as a great victory, when almost immediately it was followed by funding decisions that have the capacity to devastate higher education; and the latter development hardly drew a comment from student bodies, never mind a protest.

This may also be  a result of the fact that, on the whole, students are not being invited to play any part in the grand re-design of the third level sector. We do not canvass their views, in any grand sense, about higher education strategy, and we don’t involve them in the overall design. By this we may seem to be suggesting that the classroom, or library, or elearning experience of the student is not part of the same discussion as that which is addressing funding or governance. But in fact they are inextricably linked, and as we address the big sectoral issues we are also taking decisions that have an immediate impact on the student experience.

It is my view that the model of higher education we have on the whole been applying for 100 years or so is about to become non-viable. We will not be able to teach students in small groups, or assess them continuously, or provide them with well stocked libraries, or offer them student support services as before – but this is not something we are discussing with them, or even with ourselves. We are apparently willing to allow a major change in pedagogy without any debate. That cannot be right, and we need to re-prioritise the process.


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