Hattie Tollerson is President at London South Bank Students' Union

Recently one of our amazing student reps at South Bank approached me having seen Michelle Donelan say that “we only expect full tuition fees to be charged if online courses are of good quality”. They, quite rightly, wanted to know what “quality” meant.

There’s obviously a lot that you could count as quality – are we talking about the resources being offered to students, are we talking about the adaptability of lecturers, are we talking about students’ satisfaction? Should it be judged against the context of the pandemic or in absolute terms? And on many courses, are we talking about things that are just inside our virtual classrooms, or are we talking about the university experience as a whole this year?

What I didn’t do was start trying to explain to the rep that despite assurances over “monitoring”, the Office for Students is in the middle of synthesizing responses to an ongoing consultation over what counts as “quality”. Nor did I say that the main way we seem to be judging it is by measures that only manifest post-graduation. What are students supposed to – claim a refund in ten years if their career doesn’t go the way they expected?

In a year when my own university’s staff community has moved mountains and more to cope both with a global pandemic and a significant cyberattack, to help answer the question I took some time out from endless meetings on Zoom and teams to try to think about the question both from students’ point of view, and the university’s point of view.

1. Empathy over loss

In the press and social media, there’s “online lectures” and “cancelled freshers weeks” – and in Michelle Donelan’s tweets, there’s “online lessons” and the “social side”. The implication is clear – if you got a competently delivered former, you’re selfish to moan about the latter.

But here in the real world on the South Bank, much of the education on offer is vocational and defies those “norms”. LSBU, for example, is the site of the oldest bakery school in the UK and our Degree in Baking Science and Technology industry-leading. Students that enrolled in 2018 or 2019 for a three-year course were promised time in technical labs, one-on-one face-to-face support with course teams, entry into local competitions and plenty of placement connections.

But most of that has been impossible since March 2020. Students have had minimal time in technical spaces, competitions have stopped, placements are barely there, and crucially students have barely spent time with peers and colleagues in their field of study. The “set” student expectation when they enrolled – and signed up a lifetime of graduate contributions – has just not been met.

I’m the kind of person that finds expectations really hard to visualise. If ever anyone asks me “was your uni experience what you expected”, I usually reply “ I don’t know what I expected, but I was able to have a good time, I made friends, I graduated with a good level degree, and course staff listened to my feedback”.

In almost all cases, neither the things that I talk about in my generic reply, nor the specific aspects that students have missed out on during the pandemic are about “teaching” per se. They’re about the overall experience – which includes the buildings, the software, the support services, the career networking events, the field trips, the queue chats, the library (both for the materials and the space), the extracurricular opportunities and the skills that degrees equip us with to take on into our working lives.

It is a pity that nobody seems prepared to acknowledge that what students have missed out on isn’t some spurious “social life” moan, but important and significant components of their actual education.

2. Empathy over community

Then there’s the ability for students to access what has been delivered and the ongoing debate about what a “quality” blended learning offer will look like in the future. Most of the time when the media, ministers and DfE talk about students, they invite us to imagine an overgrown child at a big school living in a catered “hall”.

There are some of those at South Bank (young people, not “catered halls”) but when I talk about and to students, I’m rarely thinking about those cliches. I’m more likely to picture a woman who has worked as a healthcare assistant for years, and now her children are all at secondary school she wants to upskill and train to be a nurse so she can receive a higher income – and use the local university where she won’t have to commute for more than an hour to on-campus learning about 3 times a week.

When I think about her life, she’s not primarily a “student” – she is first a mother, then a wife, then an NHS worker, and then a student. And I think it’s important to keep her in mind when we think about the experience of online learning both during post-pandemic.

The online pivot was a relief to some students, and a major additional burden to others. And in fact for many, when we consider other external factors going on in our students’ lives, it was both of those things at once.

Before Christmas we decided that we wanted to hear directly from students that may have been affected by the move to online learning – so we built an SU phone bank and called thousands of them up and had a chat. And the results were really interesting.

We thought that online learning might have made it easier for parents to balance study and life. We assumed that our 18-year-old intake would have found it easy to adapt. And we guessed that students would be resenting studying and being enrolled at a university in the pandemic. We were wrong on all three counts.

Parents with children at home told us they were finding it hard to study, especially with the added factor that many of these households only have one laptop. One student I spoke to was attending lectures on her smartphone whilst her son did online classes from the laptop as she didn’t want his learning to be impacted. More traditional first-year undergrads that we spoke to were finding it hard to concentrate and engage with their learning. Yet overall students were feeling positive about the university’s response to the pandemic and were telling us that their lecturers and course teams were understanding and supportive.

So what was the secret sauce in amongst the conflicting messaging?

What came through loud and clear in almost all of our calls was that if students feel isolated and lonely from their learning community – both staff and other students – it impacts their learning and satisfaction significantly.

This was true for students still living at home with parents or shielding, and it was true for those that have remained in student accommodation this year. It was also true for our local learners, who may have been used to hanging out with classmates in the canteen or local cafes after seminars. Hanging out together, talking about the subject learnt that day, popping into the study skills in the library because you know where that space is and how to access the resources they have to offer you has all been turned on its head this year. The point is that when we talk about access to resources, that includes the humans as well as the machines, the spaces, the books and the ovens.

We should never underestimate quite how important the “community” aspect of any university experience is – and we should ensure that considering how students will build their social and academic capital into decision making at every level of the design of both a course and a university.

3. Empathy over ambition

Inevitably, when students approach me they tend to focus on hygiene factors. They’ll talk about organisation, course materials, timetables, lecture recordings being missing, and library materials etc. If these aren’t well organised, accessible and easy to navigate, students can’t learn – and so things felt pretty bleak when a cyber-attack took out our VLE.

There are other hygiene factors too. They do still worry about assessment fairness. Students across the country calling for “no detriment” policies this year wanted to hear some empathy back as much as the technical solutions (or cold insistence on “standards” from some parts of the sector). And they need the money and time to access the opportunities.

But beyond the hygiene factors, what came through really clearly in our calls was that students were impressed and motivated by university staff that took time to listen, understand their lives and adjust accordingly. Conversations where the start point wasn’t “we’ve all got it bad” or “never did me any harm”, but “what can we do to put you in a position to succeed”?

Some of that is about workload. When students have told me why they’ve not liked “online learning”, they’ve said that they’ve had little support from lecturers, or that “lecturers can ignore your emails” or that “lecturers and course directors disregard a lot of your problems and worries”. They aren’t to know that those staff are likely in a very difficult and stressful situation. It does mean that staff, students and their respective representatives should be having meaningful conversations about workload this summer – ensuring that whatever is decreed from the top about “blended” or “hyflex”, and whatever is done in the panicky hours after the clearing hotlines open, that the capacity for staff to respond to students isn’t ignored.

It’s also about understanding. We just don’t know what sort of impact the pandemic has had on school leavers, or adults about to join us that are retaining, or even returning students. And unless we are asking detailed and granular questions about what they need to succeed, we’ll apply all our usual lazy stereotypes and assumptions and deploy the scant capacity we do have in the wrong way.

Overall, what I’d say is that we might all be a “bit OU” now, but to suggest that it’s remotely possible or desirable to achieve its standards in the time that’s been available is nonsensical. The rush to make all of this happen in March last year meant that we lost a lot of the detail and the well thought out added extras that we could have to make the experience the best it can be. And “distance learning” isn’t something that many students want or need.

That all means that carrying on with this “blended model” means stopping and taking a moment to think – not about how to “sell” some “online contact hours” to people, or about the “percentage mix” of online and F2F, but instead to think about what is working for our students, what isn’t, what other factors may be impacting on our students’ educational outcomes, and what can we can do to set up students to succeed.

Most of all it means picking up things like our phone banking exercise and carrying it forward into the future. The sort of people that get to the end of a blog like this on a site like this all think they’re really good at knowing what it is that students need – but hitting the phones and talking to people about their lives for a few days showed that our hypotheses were all wrong. And even the concerted “extra mile” efforts of those that get this far won’t work unless structural solutions and institutional support for listening and responding are in place and driving decisions.

3 responses to “This is what a quality student experience looks like

  1. An insightful piece Hattie, and thanks for the NBS shout out. Like you, our brilliant administrators in the School of Applied Sciences have doing telephone ‘surveys’ with our students and gaining great insights about what matters, and this allows us to act on the issues in a timely manner. Keep up the good work on this.

  2. We all know why Universities can’t say that the quality has fallen- because we will have to refund fees. This government won’t protect the sector so we have to pretend. There have been heroic efforts to keep programmes running in any form with constantly changing government guidance, and both staff and students juggling many other demands, but we need to take some time to stop and listen. I’m fairly sure most institutions won’t.

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