New research on student perceptions of higher education

The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) has commisioned research from Kings College London, which sheds new light on what students perceive as value for money, and what is important to them.

The research was  led by Dr Camille B Kandiko. She says: ‘This report highlights how important a quality higher education experience is for students and, with the rise in tuition fees, students want “value for money”.

‘This was seen through sufficient contact hours, resources available and institutions’ investment in teaching and learning spaces. Students want to be taught by knowledgeable, well qualified, trained teaching staff in small settings, which they find helps them learn best and develop skills for future employment.’

The findings of this project aimed to provide:

  • A better understanding of student perceptions of quality and standards, leading to the possibility of more effective relationships within and across institutions
  • Sector, academic and student groups that are better equipped to understand student engagement and thus facilitate enhancement
  • Examine the impact of recent policy developments on students’ perceptions of quality
  • A more developed understanding of how perceptions vary across student groups, institutional types and regional settings

Certainly when reported in the press, the focus was on the perception of value for money and contact hours in particular, but it’s worth looking at the full list of recommendations, and considering these as a form of checklist to see where we are performing well, and also where more development might be needed.

Reading through the 38 (!) recommendations, there are certainly some lessons for the sector as a whole and also for individual institutions to consider.

The very first is around the student finance and states:

“Institutions and the sector need to explain the relationship between fees and the quality and value of their degree. There is also a need for financial education and information for students on how universities are funded and where their money goes, as there is still a lack of understanding around the case for funding universities in a new way.”

We’ve all heard students asking what they are getting for their £9000, and it’s clear to me that the change n funding has been very badly communicated, by all parties, including  UUK and and the mission groups – student and their parents, in most cases, do not realise that university income has not changed overall.

Employability is an area that picks up a number of recommendations:

Students want more support for their employability, focusing on processes, guidance support available and development opportunities, including internships, placements and work experience. There is a need for more information on employability, with a focus on ‘process’ and development opportunities, rather than ‘product’ statistics.

Institutions need to offer more course?level information and better organisation of their offering of internships, placements, work experience and skills support, all tailored to specific subjects, with support available from those with experience in those industries and fields.

Because most students want to go into specific graduate fields, generic graduate employment statistics or wage statistics are largely irrelevant.

The last one of these is interesting since KIS and DLHE type information and the data that appears in league tables tends to be aggregated Maybe this is an opportunity for some specific case studies to be used to demonstrate where students go to after graduation?

Feedback inevitably is mentioned, with a recommendations about ensuring that the feedback loop is closed and that this should be done at  a local level as much as possible.

There are recommendations about quality enhancement through development, support and recognition of staff engaged in teaching:

There should be support for staff development and training (both initial and continuing support), public information about teaching qualifications, along the lines of the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF) and institutional reward for teaching and recognition of teaching excellence.

Staff should be supported, trained and developed to enhance teaching and learning; good teaching staff should be retained as a priority.

Staff need to be supported by their institutions to provide the interaction, support and guidance that is important to students. This includes manageable teaching loads, a balance between teaching and research responsibilities and meaningful reward, recognition and progression opportunities related to teaching and support activities.

It’s pleasing at Staffordshire we have developed our portfolio route to HEA fellowship in line with the UKPSF. However, there is a question still about the level of recognition and progression is available to staff who focus on teaching activities.

There are recommendations about localism of student representation, and series of recommendations of how Students’ Unions could work to provide greater opportunities for interactions between groups of students.

The transition to HE is highlighted as an issue to be considered:

Students need more support for the transition from school or college and into higher education, particularly in terms of how to study, the level of support provided by the institution and the expectations for students. Improvements in transition needs to be balanced between higher education institutions and Schools, as higher education institutions alone cannot respond to ‘consumer choice’ when consumers are trained in a certain environment with subsequent expectations. Students suggested videos and websites that could help prepare them for the academic expectations of higher education

Students need sufficient transitional support, and the recognition that students’ transitional experiences differ widely (and wildly upon occasion); additional support can include materials and information sent before students enrol, extended Freshers’ Weeks, such as ‘The First 100 Days’, and Re?freshers’ Weeks for second year students.

For us, I think there is more work we can do on understanding the nature of incoming cohorts and their previous educational background and preferred ways of  studying. Many of us took traditional A-levels, studied at the more traditional universities, and maybe we assume our students are the same as we once were. If they have been to college and gained a BTEC, then they are a very different type of learner, but if our teaching is designed to suit the high flying A-level entrant then we are creating a difficult transition for many of our students.

Finally, students also commented that  “their educational experience was ‘not like American films’  and so there is a potential opportunity for British filmmakers in this area.” Clearly Brideshead is not a suitable reflection for most universities, and this comment from students confirms my feeling of the need for a new campus novel – where is the next David Lodge?