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Degrees of satisfaction: the Student Academic Experience Survey

The findings from the influential HEPI/HEA student academic experience have been published and in the context of the White Paper take on particular significance. We run down their findings and consider what they could mean for policy.
This article is more than 7 years old

Louisa Darian was Deputy Director at Wonkhe, and is now an advisor at the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Today HEPI and HEA publish their sixth survey on the student academic experience. It’s different to other surveys in that it not only explores students’ opinions but also controversially asks them about teaching time and class size and also the amount of private study they undertake.

As an annual survey, with a set of comparable core questions, many of the findings make for familiar reading. However, it takes on new significance this year. The survey findings were drawn upon heavily in the White Paper, and occasionally misinterpreted by the government. And with plans to incorporate a measure of contact hours into the TEF, the detail is likely to be poured over to justify or disprove the government’s case for the new framework.

The report is based on a survey of approximately 15,000 full-time undergraduate students in the UK- nowhere near the sample achieved for the NSS but certainly not small as surveys go, and with a reasonably small margin of error: for a result of 50% the authors state that they can be confident that the true result is between 49.21% and 50.79% in 95 percent of cases. The authors have refrained from conducting institutional analysis, which will come as a relief to parts of the sector. In other years, the data was combined with previous years’ findings to provide an adequate sample to allow for this. Helpfully, the data tables are available on the website for institutions that want to dig into the numbers further.

Satisfaction and value for money

There is no denying that students are overwhelmingly satisfied, but there is also evidence to suggest that they are becoming more demanding – the irony of this is that it is both what the government wanted, but is also likely to be used as a justification for reform.

  • 85 percent are satisfied, down from 87 percent last year.
  • 27 percent say that their experience has been better than expected, and just 13 percent worse, but this compares to 28 percent and 12 percent in 2015.
  • Across all regions, students are more likely to report concerns about value for money, with 53 percent reporting that their experience was good value in 2012 compared to 37 percent today. The figures in England are particularly stark where the figure falls closer to 30 percent.

Perhaps more interesting are the factors that are driving these findings. The report finds that contact hours are a critical driver of value (over more valid measures of quality like class size) helping to explain why 58% of students taking Medicine or Dentistry think they are getting good value for money compared to only 30% of students taking Social Sciences. How far the course meets expectations is also an important driver of satisfaction and, as per the previous years, the main reason students give for expectations not being met is that they have not put in enough effort themselves.

This creates a key challenge for the sector: how to educate students on what good teaching quality looks like, particularly now that the CMA will require the publishing of information on teaching hours. The TEF has the potential to address this but, given that the research demonstrates that students are not always the best assessors of quality, it raises questions over how heavily weighted NSS scores should be in it. The CMA’s information requirements also extend to the amount of private study required on a course which, providing it is used, could go some way to helping ensure that are clear about the effort that is required of them at the outset. But they don’t make requirements relating to how fees are spent which the report finds to be important: just 18 percent of students feel they have enough information on this.

Teaching and private study

On the number of teaching hours and private study that students undertake, these indicators have seen little change, with a notable exception being the number of teaching hours received which average 13.49 hours per week down from 13.79 in 2012. While this may say little about the quality of the experience, it is interesting given the value students place on contact and the TEF proposals.

As expected, there is considerable variation in the number of teaching hours that students studying different subjects receive – if the data were available at institution level this would make for more interesting reading. More surprising is the significant differences in workloads between students – particularly given that QAA guidance on the number of expected hours of notional learning for every credit is consistent across disciplines. Students work for 33 hours per week with this rising to 47 hours for students taking Subjects Allied to Medicine and dropping to 25 hours for students of Mass Communications and Documentation.

About perceptions of teaching, there is a lot to be positive about although there is still evidence of patchy views of teaching quality within institutions with around 30 percent of students saying that half of teaching staff work hard to make the subject interesting. Feedback continues to be an area of concern for students with half (54 percent) thinking their work should be returned in two weeks or less, while under one-third received it back this quickly. The evidence also suggests that students value research expertise less than teaching skills: not good news for those concerned about the separation between teaching and research that is being created by the White Paper proposals.

Student wellbeing

Last but not least, the report identifies some concerning findings relating to wellbeing and anxiety with students reporting lower levels of wellbeing than the population overall. On a positive note, two-thirds of students know where to access their institution’s counselling services, reflecting hard work that institutions have done in this area.

How will the findings be used?

Overall the results are likely to be used to continue to support the government’s case for reforms – all but in one case, which the authors hold back until the end of the report. The survey finds that students are almost universally opposed (86 percent) to government plans to let institutions raise their fees according to their TEF rating. Expect that stat to be used widely over the coming months.

One response to “Degrees of satisfaction: the Student Academic Experience Survey

  1. It’s very positive that 85% of under-graduates are satisfied with their academic experience, you’re right to focus on the factors in the downwards trajectory of student perceptions of value for money, including contact hours. It’s important to identify these factors so that the sector can respond effectively.

    I think there’s much to be learned from our finding in the report about what students think and value in teaching staff characteristics.

    The message comes across loud and clear that students value staff training and CPD – both in subject matter and in teaching skills. In the latter, 57% of students think it’s very important the staff receive training in how to teach (but only 21% think that it’s actually demonstrated); and 50% think that it’s ‘very important’ that that they maintain and improve their training on a regular basis – and only 18% think staff demonstrate this.

    We also know that there positive link between institutional investment in a professional development programme for teaching staff – aligned to the UK Professional Standards Framework UKPFS – and strong levels of engagement reported by students in the UK Engagement Survey (UKES).

    It’s hardly surprising that students value great teaching; we can help staff deliver it through investing in their training and continuous professional development.

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