Providers should think about students’ experience much more broadly than academic education – their belonging, connectedness, inclusion, and wellbeing.
Do you think you’ve got the right strategy and management structure that does this? What this might look like is a connected enhancement strategy – covering equalities, inclusion, welfare, freedom of speech, and the academic experience and outcomes in a single indivisible education strategy.
All about student experience
In other words connecting up how we think about student “experience” and seeing it as a whole rather than compartmentalising bits of it as separate services.
Will TEF (the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework) fully focus on equality of opportunity? Probably not but it is a direction of travel. We owe it to our students to ensure their experience fully joins up. How this is done at the level of their subject is an essential component of a connected enhancement strategy.
The long-awaited Pearce Review of the TEF, published in January, has clear recommendations for how TEF should develop. One of the strongest is around TEF’s primary purpose: that the student interest is best met if the core aim is to identify excellence and encourage enhancement.
A further recommendation was that implementing TEF at subject level should not proceed. This was clear because of data limitations, small cohorts, and lack of reportable data, burden and cost. The TEF Subject Pilot, which I chaired, came to similar conclusions regarding the flawed usefulness of subjects in TEF ratings.
However, the Pearce Review and our pilot reported that information and data at subject level are useful for enhancement and improvement. This was not least because of the value internally of being able to reduce variation, increase consistency, and drive innovation and good practice. Subject information is essential as part of a connected enhancement strategy.
Equality of opportunity
OfS recently published a consultation on its strategy to 2025. It reminds us that the principal regulatory objectives are for all students from all backgrounds to access higher education and succeed. To receive a high-quality academic experience, with interests protected during study. To be able to progress to employment or further study. To receive value for money.
Ensuring benefit from a high-quality academic experience is at the core. There is the promise that universities and colleges that demonstrate high quality will be able to flourish. Those that cannot, those “letting students down by providing inadequate teaching and support, will face uncompromising intervention and robust sanctions”.
And there is a strong stake in the ground around equality of opportunity: quality education is not possible without it.
Equality of opportunity is broadly defined. It includes promoting diversity and inclusion of all students with the ability to succeed. Eliminating awarding gaps. Tackling harassment and sexual misconduct, and improving student mental health and wellbeing. Students and staff being able to flourish in an environment that promotes academic freedom and freedom of speech.
OfS uses the regulatory language of compliance but wants evidence and information to highlight effective and innovative practice.
Quality and standards and equality of opportunity can only happen through a connected enhancement strategy that promotes success for all. For all students, domestic or international, all levels, all ethnicities, gender, and those with and without disability. It must cover the whole students’ experience, promoting inclusion, mental and physical health and wellbeing, and safety.
There is an obvious regulatory join up here between TEF and Access and Participation Plans (APPs). But the reality is that they are not very joined up, even down to the kinds of data that are used.
TEF takes a backward look using benchmarked data; APPs take a forward look and are not benchmarked. However, the likelihood is that they will increasingly be brought together in the regulatory framework.
TEF currently looks at this through splits: taking data on metrics such as continuation and splitting according to ethnicity, disability, gender, checking for differences. It is important that an institution understands its data and contextualises what it says about itself in its provider submission. And also what its students say about their experience in their submission.
But we must fully understand our data on equality of opportunity, and for that we require an enhancement strategy that is connected. A basic principle is that it must operate at the level of the subject and associated courses.
It won’t work for a provider, regardless of size, to set its strategy at the broad level of the institution. It must understand how academic education and equality of opportunity intersect for all students on its courses if it is to effect change.
A second principle is that services supporting access, participation, and outcomes must cross traditional organisational fault lines. Services that face education and outcomes (towards TEF and the National Student Survey) or access (towards APPs) or wellbeing must be integrated. Student-facing services need to be supra-networked, joined up and interacting as part of a truly connected enhancement strategy.
As education providers, we are surviving the pandemic, we are transforming our business models towards online and blended learning, and pulling out all the stops to provide excellent on-campus and online learning and support.
According to a recent study, the UK is regarded as world Number 1 for its quality of learning. But there is room to enhance what we do through connected enhancement strategies, to look across quality and standards and equality of opportunities and plan these together at the level of the institution and of the subject.