HEPI-HEA student survey: the good, the bad, and the ugly

The annual high-level look at the student experience overseen by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and Higher Education Academy (HEA) is now an established part of the sector’s media and policy calendar.

The survey of nearly 15,000 students has helped policy makers get helpful and innovative insights into the challenges facing universities today in delivering the best for their learners. Yet its findings have not been without controversial implications. Government justification of the Higher Education and Research Act, including the introduction of the TEF, cited the survey’s finding that supposedly “over 60% of students said they feel their course is worse than expected”. In fact, previous editions of the survey showed this figure is only 12%.

Nonetheless, the error does show the influence of this annual research, and so it’s important to pick apart the key findings and understand their implications for policy.

Here is the good, the bad, and the downright ugly lessons for universities from this year’s edition.

The good – teaching practice

Positive perceptions of teaching and teacher characteristics are up by small but statistically significant amounts. Compared to 2016, students are more likely to view their teaching staff as helpful and supportive, motivational, and clearly explaining course goals and requirements.

This may not prove to be a trend, but there are other indicators of a possible change in teaching practice for the better. Students are now more likely to be satisfied with their scheduled contact hours if they have fewer than 20 hours of contact, and less likely to be so if they have more than 20.

Does this suggest that the threat of TEF is beginning to refocus universities’ strategies towards more effective teaching practice and ‘smarter’ use of contact hours? These findings are by no means proof or this, nor are they a trend, but they do suggest something encouraging for those who have hoped that the looming TEF would influence practice.

The bad – learning gain and wellbeing

For the first time, the survey has asked questions about students’ perceptions of their learning. Learning gain wonks I’m sure would pick apart the methodological basis for this question, and it is only an indicator at most. Apparently, 65% of students report that they have, indeed, learned “a lot”. HEPI and HEA argue that this is good news for the sector, but I wonder if this is a case of a “denominator” effect? Look at this way, 35% of students, having devoted three years of their time and many thousands of pounds in nominal debt to their higher education, feel they have learned, at most, “a little”.

Conceptual limitations of this question aside, is this acceptable?  

There are also further concerning findings on student wellbeing. Once again, students are shown to have significantly lower levels of wellbeing than the general population. Even more concerning, the data shows that LGBT+ students are more likely to have low wellbeing than their straight counterparts.

Interestingly, students who reported they had learned “a lot” were more likely to report better levels of wellbeing than those who reported they had not learned much.

The ugly – racism, commuters, and transparency

Across a broad range of issues, there is some significant cause for concern about the experiences of non-white students in universities. Students from ethnic minorities are more likely to see their university experience as poor value for money, and Asian and Chinese students also have the most negative perceptions of teaching staff and practice.

There is an obvious line here that might be drawn across to what we know about attainment gaps between ethnic groups. There are challenges to consider about the diversity of curricula, the diversity of teaching staff, the accessibility of teaching and assessment methods.

There are also considerations about the wellbeing, attainment, and satisfaction of students who study from home, sometimes known as ‘commuter students’. These students are more likely to be non-white, and also more likely to report lower levels of wellbeing and learning.

Sadly, HEPI and HEA have not conducted a regression analysis of the data to parse out these two variables – race and residency – to understand the ‘dominant’ factor, but understanding the interlink between these two issues will no doubt be critical. The data is available for any keen researchers out there who might find it useful to understand better the interplay between race, commuting, attainment, wellbeing, learning gain, and student support.

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