June was an eventful month in UK higher education, bringing some spirited discussions around perceptions of quality and the elusive ‘student experience’. Although the 2016 National Student Survey shows that 86% of the 2 million students at UK universities are happy with their courses, the results of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) stirred up controversy in the sector and sparked fresh debate as to how academic quality is measured.
Introduced to assist prospective students in making a well-informed decision about which university to choose, the TEF is based on several criteria in the National Student Survey that students identify as important: graduate employment rates; effective and accessible resources; fulfilment of student potential and overall student satisfaction.
While Professor John Latham, Vice-Chancellor of Coventry University, which achieved gold rating, says that today’s students are “looking for more than historic reputation”, several Russell Group universities who were awarded bronze ratings claim that both the assessment and results lack transparency. They say that different benchmarks were used for different institutions and that the results do not accurately reflect the quality of teaching.
Either way, it’s no secret that today’s students have high expectations of their universities and, as the cost of studying increases, overall value comes top of the list. Students view value for money as having several strands, which include the quality of teaching, student support, the resources available to help students achieve the maximum outcomes and progress into well-paid graduate employment.
Above all though, students are looking for a personalised and learner-centred university experience with tutors who support them to succeed. Their preference is for relatively small teaching groups, with enough contact time for tutors to know students at an individual level and tailor the learning to their needs. These tutors will be passionate, enthusiastic and able to provide clear, personalised feedback on learning to improve their outcomes. Support services also figure highly in the basket of student requirements, like advice and guidance on extra-curricular activities, together with work placements to enhance future employability opportunities.
Not forgetting either that our students now arrive at university with certain expectations surrounding online learning and value the convenience of 24/7 access to their materials. On-demand consumers, they expect high-quality, easily accessible digital resources and course information, with control over when and how their learning takes place. Access to flexible learning materials, like Kortext online etextbooks, support students to learn in a way that makes sense for them.
With a range of in-built peer learning tools Kortext, the UK's leading digital learning platform, allows students to collaborate with minimal fuss. This way, peer learning can happen last-minute on a rainy Tuesday afternoon or at 10pm the night before a big deadline. Some universities are now offering their students free access to their set texts to enhance the academic experience and deliver better value for money.
Of course, at an institutional level, the best way to find out what students think about their university experience is usually just to ask them! Whether the feedback is gathered informally through a casual discussion or more officially with a course questionnaire, students will usually take the time to provide honest and valuable insight about how they are learning. The best institutions take student feedback seriously and, where appropriate, will use it to inform future course design and delivery.
While some academics remain unhappy with the gold, silver and bronze ratings awarded to some of the most prestigious universities in the country, it’s clear that student satisfaction will continue to be an ongoing priority in the sector. In a competitive market and as expectations increase, it’s a big remit to fill. As usual, universities will work hard to ensure that students are satisfied they’re receiving value for their tuition fees, both while studying and, ultimately, in gaining high-level employment.