Student Engagement and Experiences

Two new publications from the Higher Education Academy which are timely.

The first is on the UK Engagement Survey 2014. 32 institutions took part in the survey which looked at how students engaged with various aspects of their studies.

From the HEA website:

Among the key findings are pronounced variations between the engagement reported by students in different disciplines. Predictably large differences were found between disciplines regarding the development of skills in numerical analysis (64% of students in European languages reported very little development compared to 3% of Engineering). Other disciplinary differences mirrored the results from 2013: 26% of students in Maths and Computer Sciences, and 20% of students in Physical Sciences, felt there was very little emphasis in the course on the evaluation of points of view and information sources, compared to 2% of History and Philosophy students and 3% of Social Studies students.

Rather than just accept these outcomes as they are, and dismiss the results by expecting a lack of numeracy amongst social scientist and a lack of critical thinking amongst engineers (nothing like a good stereotype), then maybe we can reconsider how we could use our Graduate Attributes programmes to identify these gaps in our curricula, since we know that employers do look for numeracy and critical thinking amongst other skills.

At Staffordshire University we will be running our own version of an engagement survey this year for final year students on those awards that are part of our Paul Hamlyn/HEA “What Works” retention project.

The second new publication from HEA is on “Managing the student experience in a shifting higher education landscape“, where a comparative study has been made of different types of institutions and how they have responded through management of student experience after the introduction of higher tuition fees.

From the HEA website:

“It found that the two research-intensive universities seemed to be responding to the changed environment in different ways to the other four institutions who were, in general, responding by centralising services, standardising procedures and strengthening management controls. For example, the research showed a removal of the responsibility for recruitment and admissions from academic departments, and a central determination of contact hours. Organisational change in the research-intensive examples, meanwhile, usually took the form of changing the reporting lines of student-related services to create more coherent functional groupings, rather than comprehensive reorganisations, the authors report.
Other key findings:
the case study institutions have all placed greater emphasis on enhancing the quality of teaching and learning, a process usually begun before 2012, but given added emphasis since then. The report shows that the research-intensive institutions have become more prescriptive about teaching and learning matters, usually by issuing guidelines.
there was an increased emphasis on employability across all institutional types, but with variations in emphasis. This new emphasis includes employment-related curriculum changes and enhanced support for advice and placements.
higher tuition fees were affecting the character of students’ interactions with their universities everywhere, but the tendency to treat students as customers seemed to be more pronounced with managers at the less research-intensive universities.”

I don’t think that we can be surprised by any of the results, and can reflect that as a less research intensive university that our focus has been on employability through the Staffordshire Graduate programme and with a focus on centralised student services.

The point I would take issue with is this tendency to treat students as customers. While I fully recognise that the fees being paid by students means that they expect a certain level of service, I still believe that treating students simply as customers is a detrimental move. As I have written before, higher education should be transformational, and not just a transaction. It should involve students working as partners in their learning together with the academic and other staff. When we allow students to see themselves as customers, then we see a range of negative comments on Facebook that accompany things the university does in the way a supermarket might be criticised, rather than seeing comments of support for an institution in which they have a shared investment.

Reflecting on the changed education landscape, and changing behaviours, the authors of the report say:

“These changes add up to create a higher education landscape which is both fluid and unpredictable, with major challenges for institutional leaderships and managements and their academic and professional staffs.”

The future is an interesting place.



2 thoughts on “Student Engagement and Experiences

  1. In response to students as customers:
    I don’t think we should blame the scrutiny prospective students, current students and the general public are making about the HE sector purely on ‘nasty’ consumerism – that makes the HE sector seem like a poor victim.

    I think what the sector could be guilty of is not being quick enough to realise how society now absorbs, demands, accesses and regards information. The digital age is forcing everyone to be transparent. Prime example – the new boss at GCHQ as part of his recruitment process had to show he could talk to the media, unimaginable even 5 years ago.

    Therefore I don’t think you should confuse people airing their views (on social media) is because they now regard the relationship as transactional. It’s just that everyone has permission to do it now.
    Also don’t assume that people no longer want or desire the transformational aspect of HE. In the research I’ve undertaken, future students are still motivated,excited and challenged at the thought of university and at the opportunity to grow and transform in an academic environment.

    So perhaps they’re airing their views because the sector currently hasn’t created the right environment for the ‘shared investment’ to be embedded in today’s digital age? I’m not sure what that right environment is for the shared ownership but im sure a commitment of both students and staff delivering the very best they can – at all times is a starting point. Oh……..that’s beginning to sound like customer service standards………

  2. George- thanks for your comments, really useful. In an open digital environment we all express our views and use thee views of others to inform decision making. That transparency is a good thing, I agree. I think your last paragraph hits the nail on the head, about how we get the necessary level of engagement and participation from all parties.

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