The hits and misses from the 2019 Student Academic Experience survey

One of the forewords to the thirteenth Student Academic Experience survey observes that, “in the increasingly choppy waters of public perceptions about the value of higher education, the student view is significantly more positive…theirs is the view that matters most.”

While many of this year’s findings are a welcome improvement on preceding years, it is this reminder about the importance of listening to students that really hits home.This year the survey features new dimensions to the student condition that have come about from the inclusion of new questions – on preparedness for higher education, student disclosure on mental health, and on two-year degrees. And there are other areas, which have not been captured fully by the survey where the student view would have been of real value.

Positive changes on age old issues

Perceptions of value-for-money have been a real headline this decade, and they have increased significantly for the second year in a row with a gap of 12 per cent between the number of students who perceive good value (41 per cent in 2019 from 38 per cent in 2018) compared to poor value (29 per cent in 2019 from 32 per cent in 2018). Scotland and England have seen the largest increases, while Wales has not materially changed despite the recent changes to the funding regime.

And we also know why – where students have identified good value, this is linked with teaching quality and facilities. Conversely, where students have identified poor value, this is linked strongly to fees. More than 70 per cent of respondents report they do not receive enough information about how their money is spent, highlighting this as an issue for institutions to continue to focus on. And it would appear that students already have a view on the most reasonable use of tuition fees – with teaching facilities right at the top at 60 per cent, and raising the university’s profile and investing in the local community at the bottom at 14 per cent.

As the report points out, the positive value-for-money measures could be counteracted by headline cuts to fees and loans, noting the big drop in value-for-money perceptions following the 2012 reforms. In the context of Augar and any possible changes to fees, it is worth emphasising that continued upward trends in improvement is not necessarily guaranteed. And the sector shouldn’t get carried away – on this pace of improvement it’ll be a long time until a majority are positive on their investment.

Teaching quality stands out as one of the shining lights of this year’s Student Academic Experience survey. Across six out of eight areas, including “teaching staff encouraged you to take responsibility for your own learning,” “teaching staff explained course goals and requirements,” “teaching staff used contact hours to guide independent study,” and “teaching staff worked hard to make their subjects interesting,” the survey shows improved student perceptions in 2019. The two categories where the results showed no improvement or a slight decline were, “teaching staff helped you to explore your own areas of interest,” and, “teaching staff regularly initiated debates and discussion,” respectively.

Though a less modest improvement than value-for-money and teaching quality, the positive trend in assessment and feedback on academic work is another area that is worth acknowledging. In 2016, 39 per cent of students reported that teaching staff, “gave more general feedback on progress,” whereas in 2019, this figure has risen to 46 per cent. Similarly, while 53 per cent of students reported that teaching staff “gave feedback in time to help with the next assignment,” this has also improved to 56 per cent in 2019.

To see more significant improvements on these categories in future years, the authors point to students wanting more detail on why they have been awarded the marks they receive, and more focus on how any feedback relates to their next assignment. NSS suggests this is the sector’s satisfaction achillies heel, but maybe it has been this easy to fix all along.

Persistent gaps, new opportunities

Across the key measures of value-for-money, learning gain, meeting expectations and access to teaching staff, the BME student experience is less satisfactory overall. Though value-for-money has also increased among BME students – from 28 per cent in 2018 to 34 per cent in 2019 – there is a gap of 9 per cent as compared with white students. For the second year running the survey examines the experience of different ethnic groups within the BME category, finding Asian and Chinese students tend to have the least satisfactory experience. The authors highlight that the evidence base for changing the provision of support services to reflect the changing demographics of students and investing in more tailored approaches to providing information to help BME students feel more prepared for university life is more compelling than ever.

For the first time, the survey asked the question: “how prepared are students before they begin university?” The intention of this question was to provide further insight into the gap between what prospective students expect from university, and their experience when embarking on study. According to the report’s authors, a secondary purpose of the question was also to draw out the effectiveness of the various information sources that students use in deriving an understanding of university life.

The results show 22 per cent of students felt unprepared with the vast majority of students reporting they felt slightly prepared at 42 percent. Again, students from Chinese backgrounds as well as those who identify as LGBT+ or disabled, and from any either Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland report feeling significantly less prepared for university than the total sample pool. The phrasing of “slightly prepared” as a response category is odd – and raises the question of how materially different this category is to the category of feeling neither prepared or unprepared. In our view there is also a considerable degree of separation between slightly prepared and very prepared (where are the moderately prepared, for example).

On measures of student wellbeing, the survey findings lamentably reinforce the pattern that the overall levels of wellbeing among the student population remain some way below the general population of young people aged 20 – 24 as measured by the Office of National Statistics. However, there is some positive news for LGBT+ students – whose wellbeing has risen in two out of the four measures surveyed and remain unchanged for the other two.

And in response to growing interest from the sector on the matter of disclosing student mental health concerns to parents, the survey again asked for the first time: “whether university could contact parents or guardian if worried about a student’s mental health?”. Although mature students are understandably less likely to feel comfortable for institutions to contact their parents / guardian, 66 per cent of students in the general population reported that their institution could contact their parents under extreme circumstances. This is consistent with emerging thinking within the sector about how it wishes to handle sensitive student information.

More information needed

This year’s Student Academic Experience survey will obviously be seen against the backdrop of the Augar review. The review’s suggestion to conduct a “detailed study of the characteristics and in-study experience of commuter students,” holds extra weight when considering survey findings that suggest value-for-money for a student who is a typical residential student is perceived as higher than that for a full commuter student. It would be useful to examine the reasons that lie behind the headline of higher education not meeting the needs of all students equally.

Similarly, the idea of apprenticeships appeals to very few students. Less than five per cent would pursue this as an option in response to the question: “knowing what you know now, which of the following would you do if you could start again?”. Again, this mirrors the comprehensive critique that the Augar panel made of the apprenticeships scheme, including in relation to its low uptake.

While the reviewers must balance between designing a survey that can be expediently completed by the 14,000 plus sample pool while collecting statistically sound and rich data across a number of issues – which they do brilliantly – it would also be helpful to further delve into student perspectives through some qualitative data. The danger is that we infer reasons for shifts in value-for-money, or expectations gaps – but hearing “why” from students would help us avoid drawing the wrong conclusions.

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