Narratives on higher education: The student experience was invented in 1994

Before 1994, there were students and they were enrolled, taught and then they graduated.

They were tolerated and sometimes considered “the other”, and their absence during the summer was welcomed. The Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) produced quarterly research abstracts which were divided into sections: staff, international, finance, etc and it was interesting that the “students” section appeared to be the thinnest.

SRHE sought to remedy this with a call for papers for a conference on the “student experience”, with an accompanying book of essays. It is important to note the differences in motives and approach by the organisers of the conference and the subsequent talk of the student experience after 2000. To the organisers, the student experience was a subject worthy of research given the previous lack of attention and the wide field of study that students presented. The research would provide a better understanding of the lived experience of students, and bring in train a better treatment of them.

The leading work on the student experience prior to 1994 was that by Diana Green and Lee Harvey at the University of Central England (now Birmingham City University). They created the Student Satisfaction Research Unit in 1988, independent of the quality assurance systems of the university, and undertook research on a wide range of aspects of students’ experiences from catering to daily travel. In addition to surveys they undertook “mass observation” research. They also understood the problems of the existence of the unit on campus, which foreshadowed the issues surrounding the current student satisfaction surveys – raising expectation beyond attainability, the bias towards the negative, and the variety of inherent interests of a diverse student group (age, caring responsibilities, etc).

Part of the drive for establishing a space for researching the student experience was to capture the richness of the critical discourse produced by students for themselves to the institutions and to better understand the overall higher education experience. Students had been left out of the discourse except at a level of otherness, problematical, organisational, and not in-itself. As the growth of the higher education sector continued, from the elitism of a monoculture to a highly diverse mass system in the late 1980s, it became apparent there came with that change a set of new social and cultural phenomena that were research interests in their own right.

I need a solution

Where there are critical issues (BaME attainment gap, mental health, sexual harassment) students will be considered, as managers search for a “policy solution” to “solve” an internal problem. Important though such operational research and improvements might be, the purpose of the SRHE project was to initiate a subject of study.

In addition to the hope of encouraging the needed action research, there was a growth in support for professional services staff that accompanied the massification and widening participation in the old polytechnic/new universities sector in the early 1990s. They had not been encouraged or did not have a space in which to speak of their experiences and their understandings of students as specialists in dyslexia, counselling, multiple religions on campus, disabilities, and so on.

The interesting absence had been in the variety of discrete student identities which had not been articulated: learner, tenant, client (then of professional services only), representative, legal as customer (for food, gym or sports facilities), and the legal relationship of student to institution, and case law seemed mediaeval as that of apprentice to master. To this day, despite the usual stuff about student protection under consumer law, the caselaw considers the relationship of student as an apprentice to the academic or the faculty in general – that relationship not allowing for the questioning of the judgement of the master as the apprentice. The academic judgement cannot be questioned by the student.

There were informal understandings of student and family – sometimes a traumatic period of change in families such as parents’ divorce, independent living of sorts, loss of friends or displacement which were familiar in case work – but they had not been articulated. In a sense that there had not been the space to focus on the problems, the problems did not exist. An example of the operational approach to the student experience, in some ways still prevalent in institutions, is the approach to the social and cultural dynamics of entry into higher education. The dynamics, partly a result of the “boarding school” culture of living away from home (unlike most other western higher education systems) were then considered an administrative problem of the “hotel services” of a campus, rather than a location of the students’ developmental and emotional challenges.

The aim of the SRHE in 1994, therefore, was to create a phenomenology of the student experience. The initiative was not to solve a problem but to create a discipline. If the discipline might be used to improve the students’ experience, then all to the good.

Reflection and discussion

It is odd that the multiplicity of new challenges and duties students initially face – moving away from home, loss, responsibilities within the university community, new learning styles, independence and taking responsibility, understanding the resources available, or life after university – have little space for reflection and discussion on campus.

Notwithstanding the seeming power of the corporate management to force through changes, they have little sway in deciding the curricula. That authority still remains with the faculties in the preservation of academic rigour, professional accreditations and academic amour propre. The demands of the academic are not impeded by an understanding of the higher education world and the world beyond with rigour. And so the development of a deeper understanding of the condition, roles and duties of being a student remains hugely important.

3 responses to “Narratives on higher education: The student experience was invented in 1994

  1. ‘For many of our universities the “student experience” has become the organising concept, the fount of a thousand strategic priorities and key performance indicators. But the student experience tends to be conceived as if the interpretivist paradigm had never existed, becoming no more than a quantitative summation of student surveys and managerialist evaluations. The ‘student experience’ has become a stick to beat academics with, instead of the carrot that motivates them. It has also become a tool for reductionism, as students are driven ever closer to being the consumers and customers which neither they nor their teachers wish them to be. The student experience is conceived as some kind of unified average instead of being celebrated for its individually constructed uniqueness’ (SRHE News 5 Editorial, March 2011).

  2. Rob, I can only agree on your point on the instrumental/managerial approach to the student experience which elides the differences and the uniqueness of the student learning as logically distinct from the behaviours of teaching. An interesting category error of conflating the two activities. Another interesting research project in itself would be how the BaME attainment gap became ‘a problem’ revealed and then much later to be tackled rather than a subject that was either ignored, strenuously denied (as other institutions’ issues but not ours) or unknown.

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