Everyone in UK higher education should have had the memo by now: Put Students at the centre.
More specifically, put their ‘experience’ at the heart of the system. ‘Student experience’ has become deeply embedded in policy discourse, increasingly aligned with student engagement mechanisms that encourage students to play a more impactful role in the development and running of university initiatives, such is students’ re-enlightened centrality.
But what does ‘student experience’ mean? What can it possibly mean? In 2011, Duna Sabri argued that ‘both “student” and “experience” are shallow conceptions’ deployed as powerfully discursive notions in the marketising rationale that places students on a consumer pedestal. In 2013 an accepted definition remains elusive, possibly because an enigmatic and standardised student serves vested interests much more easily. A formidable hybrid remains; welfare, co-curriculum, employability and academic attributes fall into a futile melting pot of definition.
To place ‘student experience’ in the context of recent higher education reforms, the heightened marketplace aura of higher education has remodelled students as clients, whose assessments of the service they receive are central to judging universities’ success. Writing in Blue Skies for the Pearson Think Tank Ken Starkey analogises British higher education to British banks: if both are to remain credible they must demonstrate how they create value for their customers. In other words, how can universities convince students that they are not offering sub-prime degrees?
As an observer, it feels like Britain is running before walking. If ‘student experience’ is to be so intimately connected to the mode or amount of payment, the controversial implication being ‘Pay More, Get More,’ then there must be consideration for how vacuous the phrase becomes in the context of the practical delivery of teaching and services.
There is not one student, and there is not one experience – that much is obvious. ‘Student experience’ implies that each student’s university life is undifferentiated; class, race, ethnicity and economic circumstance all disappear. Moreover, ‘student experience’ is expressly generic and places all students on an equal footing regardless of the huge variation in what higher education institutions have to offer. If policy, put simply, is to treat students ‘better’ because they are a more substantial financial asset then how is that policy going to meet the demands of all those students in all those different contexts?
Phrases such as ‘student experience’ are used for ease of conversation; everyone is fully aware that it does not, and cannot, encompass ‘everything’. Yet the policy associated with its heightened use in the discourse is striking. In this vein ‘student experience,’ the enigma behind much strategy, is quantifiably justified as sound business practice. Fresher Bloggs checks in at registration to find he’s been bumped from Economy up to Business, but not for nothing. Correlating levels of experience with those of a purse makes sense: for a £500 hotel room, you would expect more than just clean sheets.
Nevertheless it is disheartening to think of ‘student’ as nothing more than a synonym of ‘customer,’ and the university experience comparable to staying in a Deluxe Double. This is not to suggest that the situation is so simply drawn, for that would be naive, but to ask a cynical question as to whether ‘student experience,’ is just the spin-marketing of a far more controversial upheaval within the sector. If the phrase is to be useful, if it is to genuinely enhance teaching and learning by listening to the student experience as a multifaceted concept, then the shackles of its narrow usage must be cast off.
Educational institutions offer a priceless commodity: knowledge and the opportunity to develop as an individual. If ‘student experience’ is to be a force for progressive change then it needs to mean more than the ‘student is always right.’ ‘Experience’ and ‘Engagement’ need to become closer cousins to undermine ‘Student’ and ‘Customer’ being treated as one and the same in a manner that does not allow clients any role other than to simply put a utilitarian value on the ‘product’ they’re receiving. Exeter’s positive revisualisation of students as ‘Change Agents’ is representative of a different trend, one which seeks to affirm the importance of students among the swatches of tribal academic communities that make up the average HEI. ‘Student Experience’ is too tied to consumer-only discourses. It is worth much more than that, whatever it may actually be.