Understanding the student experience in UK HE; what has changed since we were students?
I was a student once, I ‘know’ what the student experience is (I even have pictures of me being a student to prove it)! This was my thinking for much of my time as a junior faculty member. But then something happened to change my thinking. I saw a poster, a poster for a 90’s themed party. The era I attended university (the 90’s) is now only fit for nostalgia by this new generation of students. This got me thinking what else has changed? What is the ‘new’ student experience and can we measure it?
‘Students’ (me) enjoying a 70s themed party in the late 1990s. Scanned photograph (not digital, an era before universal usage of mobile phones and digital cameras).
The term ‘student experience’ inhabits conferences and management meetings but its meaning is constantly changed and corrupted. As an educator I don’t want to see the ‘student experience’ reduced to another buzzword. As an educator I see the importance of ‘the experience’ for my students every day and as a scientist I ask questions; I ask can it be objectively observed; can it be measured?
Quantifying the student experience in a rich and meaningful way though is difficult. Some of the more notable attempts are listed below:
National student survey (NSS).
UK Experience Survey (UKES) (HEA).
THE Student Experience Survey.
Sordexo/THE Quality of Life Survey.
The Student Academic Experience Survey (HEPI).
These surveys ask our students questions about their experience; converting them into scores to compare. This gives us exciting information like, ‘our’ institution ‘X’ is ‘ranked 4th’ for ‘X’. Information that fills our prospectuses and open day talks. But the risks of such measures are that they reduce the complexity of each students experience to a one-size-fits-all-definition of the student experience. The richness is lost.
Collecting that richness is more difficult with larger numbers of students. Hundreds of thousands of students are surveyed each year for the NSS. Qualitative studies using focus groups and interviews (for practical reasons) survey much smaller numbers of students. Even the relatively large Student Expectations and Perceptions Survey (Kandiko, 2013) only interviewed 150 students. However the richness of the data they collected gives a more detailed view of the student experience for those students.
Their experiences are expressed as lived experiences:
“I was doing biology of cancer and there was about 250 on that course, and for one topic the [lecturer] was insisting that everyone should read this amazing book, and I went to the library and there was two copies and one was lost, and it was like this big kind of hardback beast and like no one’s going to be able to buy it, so it was not very helpful.” [Third year, Female, Biochemistry, Research‐intensive institution] (Kandiko, 2013).
Example of one students experience in their own words.
Reading these experiences got me thinking about my own student experience (what Brookfield might call my autobiographical lens). I was a student once, so surely I ‘know’ what the student experience is! This was my thinking for much of my time as a junior faculty member. But as I mentioned above something happened to change my thinking. I saw a poster for a 90’s themed party. The realisation that the era that I went to university (the 90’s) is now only fit for nostalgia by this new generation of students was jarring. It got me thinking further about what has changed for this generation of students?
The two biggest changes that have occurred in the last 15-20 years are technology and tuition fees.
Can you guess the year each of these new technologies was released?
Wikipedia, iPod, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, TED.com talks, iPhone, iPad?
Answers: (Wikipedia 2001, iPod 2001, Facebook 2004, YouTube 2005, Twitter 2006, TED.com talks 2006, iPhone 2007, iPad 2010).
What do all of these technologies have in common? They all came out after I graduated! (I know, how did I managed to get a degree without using Wikipedia?!). Each of these technologies has had the potential to profoundly change the ‘student experience’. The student experience today cannot be the same as my experience in an era when you had to go to the library and physically search for research articles printed in journals on shelves! Students today look at me blankly when I try to explain this to them (much in the way you might look at an elderly relative reminiscing about a bygone era). They don’t look at me in awe, more in sympathy, and why wouldn’t they, that era is irrelevant to them and their futures.
Another fundamental change for our students that cannot be ignored is the increase in tuition fees. Fees were just being introduced when I was a student and I remember joining the NUS march through London against the introduction of £1000 fees.
Since then fees have been tripled and then tripled again. The full ramifications of these changes have yet to be fully realised but already it has fundamentally changed the student experience and asked questions of our students that would have never have occurred to me when I was a student.
UK fees timeline:
1962 Mandatory maintenance grants are introduced for students to cover tuition fees and living costs.
1980 Student grants are increased from £380 to £1,430.
1989 The Tories freeze grants and introduce student loans. Grants of up to £2,265 remain available for poorer students, while loans of up to £420 are on offer to all applicants.
1998 The Teaching and Higher Education Act is passed into law – setting an annual tuition fee for England of £1,000. Means testing means a third of students will not pay anything.
2006 Students starting university in the autumn become the first to be charged the higher £3,000 fees.
2012 £9k fees introduced for new students.
2016 £9,250 increase of fees linked to inflation and TEF
Since fees went up, institutions in England have to publish what are called ‘key information sets’ telling students everything from entry grades to employment rates and everything in between, course-by-course. The aim has been in increase choice and create a ‘market’. In fact students are now covered by consumer law. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has produced a document for students called Undergraduate Students: Your Consumer Rights.
Seeing this CMA document for the first time was almost as upsetting as seeing my first poster for a 90’s themed party. It indicated that the university experience as I know it has fundamentally changed.
Parents and students are asking what is the value of their degrees, at a time when the value of a degree is argueably falling due to the massification of the UK higher education system. In 1992 around 17% of the population were graduates. When I was a student in the late 90s that figure had risen to 30% it is now passing 40% (for school leavers it is already passing 50%).
These changes are profound and have occurred over a relatively short period of time (15-20 years). They should make us question our assumptions about the student experience. It might be difficult to measure but one thing is almost certain; the student experience experienced by your current students is not the same as your experience. Thinking about this further might help us to understand our students better (for example is it any wonder they are more anxious as a cohort? a theme for another post). But for now think about your own student experience:
Q1. How do you think your past personal experiences of University compare to your student’s experiences of University today? (Then vs Now).
Q2. How could/should this influence how you teach/tutor/interact with your students?