Whatever happened to the student experience?

“The ‘student experience’ is one of those compound concepts that has begun to take on a life of its own, relatively removed from reality”.

So began a 2006 contribution from the late David Watson to the Higher Education Academy’s “exchange” magazine. Watson – one of the foremost academic leaders of his generation – thought the concept had rather lost its way. It was under pressure, he argued, because it was no longer a singular thing, and had been appropriated by all sorts of sector actors – politicians “complaining about what students get”, the funding councils “especially in the context of the National Student Survey”, and by institutions “in their prospectuses”.

In the article he suggested six propositions for debate, a proper consideration of which would avoid “a rather patronising, nostalgic evocation of what we (of a certain age) think we most fruitfully received at their stage in life”. Like so much of his work, it deserves a fresh reading.

Proposition one: this is an extraordinarily successful generation of higher education students, and we should be celebrating (rather than carping about) their success

Watson’s opening question focused on student and graduate performance in areas like retention and employability. Today, the press is still full of tales of their laziness and despite studies demonstrating that students work harder than ever, the import of the grade inflation trope from A levels to higher education has denigrated their achievements even further.

When we do talk about success, it is often institutional. Marketing and regulation stresses the role of the provider as producer. But as he pointed out, outcomes are students’ achievements – not just a measure of what institutions do to them. Perhaps we should stress this more.

Proposition two: at their best, and given the chance, students know what they want to do, and their instincts are sound

Back in 2006, there was concern that providers had faced difficulty in adjusting to the popularity and unpopularity of some courses, with Watson highlighting that many institutions had chosen to enter a field (like sports science) after the market had peaked. His plea for more choice – in subject, mode of study and institution type – is one that has concerned every universities minister since, as ever more creative levers (like last week’s two-year degrees approval) are pulled to fight the seeming tide of homogeneity.

Ironically, the lifting of the undergraduate numbers cap was supposed to enable better responses to demand, but it has also muddied the picture. Has the huge rise in social sciences and business studies (see last week’s UCAS figures) really been about responding to demand, or about expanding cheap-to-run provision that enables profitable cross-subsidy?

Proposition three: we need to be particularly careful about “skills”, on the way into and on the way out of university

Watson identified an interesting trap: his generation’s attempt to impose “the portfolio career” on a generation whose journey towards a stable single occupation or employer may be slightly longer or more complex, “but in fact has the same destination”. This is a cliche that holds on the first slide of many a student experience conference powerpoint, yet MORI research last year suggests he was right then and would be right now. Ironically, it is in the new “middle stage” of 21-30 that there is lots of career-hopping and experimentation, yet we persist in regulating and evaluating providers on their graduate job outcomes over a tiny window of time.

He also identified “nostalgic and ideologically loaded” analysis of what both new and graduating students can’t do, but almost no focus on what they “screenagers” can do. “It won’t be long before we are no longer talking about ICT as if it’s something ‘over there’.  It will be an integral and embedded aspect of all subjects”, he argued. Yet to many academics and institutions, students’ resourcefulness and interconnectedness on entry still feels like a surprise.

Proposition four: credentialism counts, and students know it

Look at the growth in early re-registration for postgraduate and post-experience courses”, he said. “In the knowledge economy you need an increasing level of qualification to stay in the same place”.  

He was probably right, but he might not have predicted that the indebtedness of the lucky 50%, along with the populism of those preying on the poverty of everyone else, would cause such universal yet unjustified suspicion about more education.

Proposition five: students now invariably work for money, and not just in response to changes in fees and student support

“They want to sustain lifestyles”, he said. “We should certainly be tracking all of the current studies about student debt, but also those about debt and debt propensity in the wider society – where we often don’t see debt aversion, rather debt joy”.

The willingness of students – and now their institutions – was (and remains) a puzzle for those raised to save up. But the attitudinal disconnect means that we have stored up – as students, as a sector and as a society – a problem for the future that few properly understand.

Proposition six: students care

We forget now, but back in the 90s the low levels of youth participation in formal politics, the managerialism of relatively centrist parties and theories about the rampant individualism of “Thatcher’s children” all created a mild panic about student apathy.

But Watson wasn’t convinced. “Some smarter students’ unions have spotted this. What does get them going is concern about the environment, and their obligations to their friends.  Students are also ahead of us in international perspectives”. Perhaps the problem now is not that they don’t have “politics”, it’s that their political outlook appears to be at diametric odds with one side of a rancorous, all-consuming split. What we don’t know is how to fix it.

Understanding, not just measuring students

So what did he want to change? He was keen to avoid “brittle, litigation averse” concepts of customer care. He suggested taking note of what students wanted their additional fee income spent on: books, IT and security. He wanted us to cling to “notions like joy, fun, and even mercy, alongside accountability and the relentless march of uniform ‘good practice’”. And he wanted to avoid falling into the trap of replacing one  homogeneous image of the undergraduate population: “the Oakeshottian finishing school”, with another: “the screenage generation”.

But perhaps his most vivid and valuable observation was in the introduction. Watson was never satisfied with just understanding students’ satisfaction – he wanted an understanding of their lives.

Young people in Western societies now relate horizontally… more effectively to their friends, to the internet… than they do to ‘authority’, to their families, and especially to political structures”.

Predicting that expansion would result in traditional types of “screening” for resilience falling away, he argued that the sector would need strategies for supporting a student body that more closely resembled wider society. “There are certain characteristics of this population that we are less well equipped to deal with than others (and than we should be). One of these is mental health”.

He was right, of course. So why has it taken us thirteen years to get to a stage where a charity (Student Minds) is consulting on a voluntary charter on what has now become a student mental health crisis?

I am principally arguing for a consultative, and research-based, approach to what students really want and need, and not just a rather patronising, nostalgic evocation of what we (of a certain age) think we most fruitfully received at their stage in life”.

It is never too late to heed David Watson’s words.

One response to “Whatever happened to the student experience?

  1. A good read and timely reminder of the interconnecting issues facing HE today that were forcast by the late Sir David. I was fortunate to have David as my VC as a student and member of staff and later a friend of the Postgraduate Experience Project. His 6 propositions have greatly influenced my work. What is frustrating is that policy is often devised to ‘solve’ one proposition which then impacts on another. Policy makers at national and institutional level need to look at the whole picture and not the different propositions in silos. And putting enabling measures in place to support our diverse student body to engage, progress and succeed in, through and out is essential.

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