The HEPI/HEA Student Academic Experience Survey was established in 2006 and has become a rich dataset.
One recent minister for universities told me he had rejected HEFCE’s pleas to stop using it in favour of the official (and sanitised) National Student Survey (NSS) because he found it so useful. It remains the best source of information on important issues such as contact hours, value for money, and student wellbeing.
Every year, institutions use the data for internal assessments of how they compare to their competitors. One vice chancellor, Tim Blackman, has undertaken his own research on a single question from the survey to show what affects self-perceived learning gain. Information sources for higher education applicants, such as Unifrog, use the data to reveal what different options are like.
A different experience
But even though the survey is HEPI’s flagship project, it remains frustrating that the extensive information we have collected with the Higher Education Academy (now Advance HE) via YouthSight, is not more widely used. We wanted to put that frustration to positive use. So we commissioned Charlotte Freitag, a University of Oxford postgraduate who previously studied at the University of Glasgow, to look afresh at the last six years of data. The specific essay question we posed was “Oxford and Cambridge – how different are they?”, which is the title of an influential (but old) HEPI paper.
The results, published today, are illuminating. A much higher proportion of Oxbridge undergraduate students (59%) are “very satisfied” with their course than undergraduates at other Russell Group institutions (31%) or undergraduates overall (also 31%). Oxbridge undergraduates report working an average of 43 hours per week during term-time, 12 more than those at other Russell Group institutions and undergraduates overall. Nearly all Oxbridge undergraduates (96%) have at least one hour per week in micro-sized tutorials or supervisions of up to five other students compared to just over a third elsewhere.
82% of Oxbridge students say that they receive their work back within one week on average, compared to just 13% of other Russell Group students and 11% of students overall. Against my prior expectations (or prejudices), we found Oxbridge students score better on our wellbeing indicators than students elsewhere, except for anxiety where there is no statistically significant difference.
What Oxbridge’s difference means
I think that there are three key lessons from this research. First, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge are exceptional – and exceptionally good. We are lucky to have them in our higher education system and there are probably some benefits for all other institutions – for example, in the UK’s overall appeal to potential international students. I worry about the consequences for the sector as a whole of having two such hyper-selective institutions at the top of the tree, and Oxford’s new data on access shows how big their own challenges are. But it would be churlish not to be impressed by the excellent education and student experience our two oldest universities provide.
Yes, some students who enter Oxbridge find that they would have been better suited to another institution – as we make clear in the report. Yes, Oxford and Cambridge have well-prepared students, lots of money, pleasant college environments, highly-skilled staff, and are situated in cities that offer a high quality of life. Yes, senior leaders at other institutions could provide a similarly world-class experience if they only had access to the same advantages. But, it would be silly to ignore Oxbridge’s strong record just because Oxford’s and Cambridge’s circumstances are fortunate and near impossible to emulate.
Second, there is at least one important area where the outliers are neither Oxbridge nor newer universities, but non-Oxbridge Russell Group universities. This is the prevalence of larger classes: 59% of other Russell Group undergraduates have at least one class per week with more than 100 other students, in comparison to 42% of Oxbridge students and 42% of students overall. This does not mean students at other Russell Group institutions are struggling to have a great student experience – year after year, our overall survey results tell a positive story about the student experience at Russell Group universities.
Third, there are many areas where the experience of students overall looks similar to the experience at non-Oxbridge Russell Group institutions. In addition to those areas mentioned above, other areas where this is true include: whether students would have chosen a different course; value for money perceptions; and usefulness of feedback. When we sent the report out under embargo, one vice chancellor immediately emailed back to say: “the really interesting thing about the analysis is not ‘how different Oxbridge is’ but how similar the results are for the Russell Group and all other UK universities.” He has a point, though others will no doubt point out that bigger differences would be evident if we had looked at research rather than teaching and learning.
The new report uses data from 2012 to 2017 and we will be publishing the latest data at HEPI’s 2018 Annual Conference on 7th June 2018. Following the recent merger, our report will be badged the HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey for the first time and it will be more sophisticated than ever before. That means more detailed questions and answers on value for money, the use of tuition fees, and attitudes towards international students, as well as new analysis cutting the data in novel ways. We hope to see you there.