What students really want (and why it matters)

BU hosted Dr Diana Beech from the Higher Education Policy Institute on Wednesday morning for a policy breakfast, part of this year’s CELebrate symposium.  In a packed room and despite the early start, we had a great discussion about student perceptions, value (and value for money).

Diana started with a review of the HEPI/AdvanceHE 2018 Student Academic Experience Survey, which was published last week.  The survey was  established in 2006, so is now in its 12th year, giving useful data trends.  It surveys over 14,000 full-time undergraduate students in all years of study (not just final year students like the NSS).  The full survey is available to download for free.

  • It seems from the data, that contact time and private study have not changed much since 2006, despite the many changes in the sector, including growing student numbers, changes in funding etc.  However, since 2012, when fees were increased, perceptions of value for money by the students surveyed have fallen consistently – until this year.  This year the percentage of respondents saying that they believed that they were getting good, or very good value for money for their course, moved up from 35% to 38%.  And the percentage saying they got poor, or very poor value for money went down from 34% to 32%.  [Ed: These figures are often cited by Ministers, and were by Sam Gyimah at his speech last week (see our policy update last week for more on this topic) – “only [just over] a third of students think they get value for money” is the headline, and the government’s own initiatives in terms of a relentless focus on quality through the TEF, the new regulatory environment etc are credited with the improvement].
  • Diana described how this year a new question had been asked about what the reasons were behind the rating that had been given for value for money – for those saying that they received good or very good value, the top 5 reasons (in order) were teaching quality, course content, course facilities, career prospects and quality of campus.  On the other side, the top 5 reasons given by those who received poor or very poor value for money were tuition fees, teaching quality, contact hours, course content and cost of living.  It is interesting that teaching quality and course content are levers for good or bad value for money, that concern about money is clearly linked to perceptions of poor value.  It is also unsurprising to see contact hours linked to perceptions of poor value, but it may be of some surprise to see quality of campus linked to good value.
  • So on contact hours, Diana noted that those students with the highest perceptions of value for money also seem to be studying subjects with the greatest overall workload.  [Ed: This is not necessarily linked to contact hours – looking at contact hours the subjects seem to fall into three groups, with medicine, dentistry and veterinary and physical sciences standing out for the number of contact hours (15-19) and history, languages, business and social studies at the other end (8-10).  The rest fall in the middle, but the chart looks at total workload including independent study and work outside the course].
  • Diana also flagged another trend – the percentage of students saying that their experience has been better than they expected has fallen fairly consistently since a high point in 2013, and has fallen again this year from 25% to 23%.  Again, when students saying that the experience was worse than expected (12%), teaching quality came top of the reasons, with course organisation [Ed: a familiar NSS question], lack of support in independent study, lack of interaction with staff, poor feedback (Ed: NSS again) and contact hours featuring again.  The last two of the top 8 reasons were “not put in enough effort myself” (30%) and “too little interaction with other students” (26%).
  • Diana talked about commuter students, who are less likely to be satisfied, and more likely to say that if they had known what they know now, would not have entered HE – along with those who are employed for more than 10 hours and Asian students.  There is intersectionality here, Asian students and those who are employed for more than 10 hours have a higher propensity to be commuter students.  Diana talked about her recent report for HEPI looking at the potential growth in undergraduates by 2030 (as many as 500,000 more) – and the possibility that many of those may be commuter students – a challenge for the sector given the concerns raised above.
  • Developing this theme, Diana mentioned the recent paper written by Sir Anthony Seldon and Dr Alan Martin on the “positive and mindful university“.
  • Diana referred to the HEPI/Unite Students report “Reality Check – a report on university applicants’ attitudes and perceptions”.  One concern is that only 49% of applicants realise that rent will be their biggest cost apart from tuition fees.  Diana discussed concerns about whether students understand where their tuition fees are spent, and the interesting response to the question about how tuition fees should be spent (teaching facilities (65%), teaching staff (60%), student support services (57%) come top, campus development (52%), financial support for students (49%) and research facilities and resources (49%) come next.  Interestingly student recruitment and marketing are lower on the list (at 16% and 15%) and investing in the local community is supported by only 12%.

You can read Diana’s slides here.

We then had a Q and A and discussion session with a panel consisting of Debbie Holley, Lois Farquharson, Alex Hancox and Diana and chaired by Jane.

  • We discussed commuter students and the particular issues of making the campus “sticky” for these students, particularly in relation to HSS students who live near work and final year students who may have put down roots in their placement year and becoming commuter students is one reason why they can find it hard to reintegrate in their final year (there may be other reasons too). [Ed: see an interesting article on Wonkhe this week on stickiness generally)
  • We discussed issues linked to value for money – should we talk about value, and not focus on financial return [Ed: see last week’s policy blog for our take on the latest ministerial pronouncements about graduate salaries]
  • We also talked about the wider value of university in terms of life experience, friendships, soft skills- and how this is important but often overlooked [Ed: there are a couple of interesting articles on this in last week’s policy blog]
  • We talked about student information and the importance of making sure that applicants could access the information about the things that mattered for them, and how talking to students, and spending more time than just an open day, might be an important part of this.  We discussed briefly the importance of students understanding how their fees are spent (which is in the survey) and how to do this better.
  • In terms of expectations, Alex pointed out that students were overloaded with information in induction week and it was suggested that we need to follow up, drip feed etc.
  • We talked briefly about tuition and living costs.  Points were made about how challenges with living costs might be increasing the number of commuter students and affecting their outcomes.  We also discussed the unhelpful terminology around loans, debt, value for money, tuition fees that are really “university fees”.  [Ed: This is a very big subject, you might want to read BU’s response to the review of post-18 education and we gave links to other sector responses in our policy update on 4th May.]
  • We talked about mental health and wellbeing – including about how some students might choose to live at home for support.  We also discussed challenges with the definition of “living at home”  – it may be different issues for mature students who have families than 18 year old students who live with parents – although the impact on extra-curricular engagement may be the same
  • We talked about engaging students with research and equality of access to these sorts of opportunities for broader engagement
  • We discussed the TEF and the use of splits data – are universities really using their splits data and is it driving change?
  • In the context of contact hours, Alex made the point that quality of contact is as important as the amount – students may want more help not more lectures.

HEPI are interested in further research and policy publications, using this data or other data – please contact policy@bournemouth.ac.uk if you would like to discuss this further.

Many thanks to all who attended and we look forward to continuing the dialogue on many of these issues.

 

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