This article is more than 5 years old

Should we meet or transform student expectations?

Nick Hillman unpacks the evidence on the gap between student expectations and reality and argues that both need to change.
This article is more than 5 years old

Nick Hillman is the Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and a former Special Adviser to David Willetts, the Minister for Universities & Science.

There is no doubt that there is a big expectation gap among students.

I saw it myself many years ago when, as a teacher, I ran a pre-university course. It was back in the days before the reintroduction of tuition fees but my sixth-form pupils had little concept, for example, of living costs. I remember asking them what they thought their biggest cost would be at university and they were all stumped for an answer – until one piped up with ‘a car’.

The HEPI / Advance HE 2018 Student Academic Experience Survey confirms a big gap remains. Out of 14,000 full-time student respondents, under 1,400 said their academic experience had been exactly as expected. Moreover, other research we have undertaken with Unite Students shows particularly big expectation gaps on contact time, living costs and disclosure of episodes of mental ill-health.


There are only three ways to address this: altering expectations; changing higher education; or doing a little of both. The last option is my preference because the expectation gap is so large, we cannot simply change higher education to fall in line with what people expect without losing important elements.

But we should nonetheless recognise that higher education does need to change when the backgrounds of students change. If, as an institution, you end up with more first-in-family students, more commuter students, more disabled students or just significantly fewer white middle-class students, then how you deliver higher education should change to reflect your new student body.

Responding to change

I remember being shown around a campus by a vice chancellor whose institution has been radically affected by the removal of student number controls. The result was that the make-up of his students had changed beyond recognition, particularly in terms of ethnicity. It would have been irresponsible for the university to have just continued business as usual – and it would have quickly shown up in the metrics if they had.

The core underlying goal, in my opinion, should be integration. There are some underlying principles in life which are nearly always good. They include diversity and integration. How can we best make students from radically different backgrounds feel integrated within a single community?

As one sabbatical officer at the University of Liverpool wrote in a HEPI publication when it looked like the Cameron Government might attack students’ unions: ‘If it were not for joining a student society, I would not have finished university; I would have left after my first year, struggling with poor mental health. Towards the end of my first year I joined a society that became my support network. They got me out of the house and doing things that I enjoyed, and they made me feel like I belonged in Liverpool.’


But there is one important caveat: integrated is not the same as comfortable or easy. I think data on things like how many students wish they had done a different course are depressingly high, at around one-third. But I don’t know what the right figure is because higher education should, in part, take you apart as a person and put you back together again: it is, and should be, life transforming.

It often does this very successfully, which is why factors like wellbeing tend to be lower than average among students, who are in the unsettling phase, but higher than average among graduates, who are experiencing the full benefits afterwards.

Next steps on policy

If this is such an important area, where should the discussion on expectation gaps go next? I think there are three areas.

  • First, we need to explain much better where student fees go. This is a means to an end rather than, as some suppose, an end in itself. It allows us to have a more informed conversation with students (and, incidentally, policymakers) on the cost base of universities and where resources should flow.
  • Secondly, we should start a deeper conversation about what independent learning – a core feature of higher education – means. Schools and colleges often interpret this in a different way to universities. For example, among teachers, the concept can mean everyone independently familiarising themselves with the same material, but at a higher education institution it more often means each student exploring the same topic, or related topics, in their own ways.
  • Thirdly, we need to continue the conversation Sam Gyimah rightly and controversially started on when and how universities should act a little more as if they are in loco parentis. I know this is an unpopular idea. When the sector was talking about the issue last year, I asked people at a HEPI event to put up their hand if people thought the Minister had been right to raise the issue. No one did.

I still think he was on to something. Universities are not in loco parentis in the way a boarding school so clearly is, but we do need to think a little more about the things that students, and those who care about them, want but which are falling through the cracks. The in loco parentis concept can provide a useful framework in which to do that.

2 responses to “Should we meet or transform student expectations?

  1. Your first two points make a lot of sense but just can’t conceptualise how the third could be achieved without undermining the preceding two.

    Universities are academic communities, not therapeutic communities, and attempting to remove self-agency of a student would likely undermine further their experience.

    Would like to discuss further as, although I listened to what SG said, apart from using the term in loco parents their didn’t appear to be much substance or clarity outlined.

  2. Gosh that is hard line. That makes it sound as if the students are there for the benefit of staff. Universities are in receipt of a large amount of public money and in my opinion should behave as such. They have multiple responsibilities, which l agree at core is as a community of knowledge and l hope learning, but many other things besides. I think it is important we recognise the interests of all our stakeholders. In respect of students l think we have a responsibility not just to nurture but also as far as is possible, prepare them for life after graduation so that they are conscious of being autonomous, independent lifelong learners. There is no contradiction between safeguarding and inculcating independent learning.

    Very few students join the academic community and while we take their money, hopes and expectations we should treat them as we would like to be treated ourselves.

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