Student experience in 2017 – what are the issues?

How do recent changes in the political and financial landscapes of higher education in the UK affect the student experience?

By Robert Stoneman, Analyst at GlobalData

Are we doing enough to ensure that international students have the best possible experience? Are the potential effects of Brexit for our European students any clearer now?

The higher education sector in the UK will be concerned that the number of students from EU countries has fallen by 5% this year, the only consolation coming from a rise of 2% in those from the rest of the world.

A major factor in this is the perception that the UK is now less tolerant of international students since the Brexit vote. Universities need to take the lead in fighting this since the government, Theresa May especially, has shown little willingness to set the record straight. The only major exception was the guarantee of continued funding for EU students beginning courses in 2018/19.

Yet the most concerning issue remains May’s insistence that international students be included in net migration figures. Considering she has recommitted to getting net migration levels down to the 10,000s, this stance could have a disastrous impact on the attractiveness of the UK as a higher education destination.

On a positive note, the claim that approximately 100,000 international students overstay their visas each year has been exposed as little more than a myth. The latest ONS figures show just 4,600 overstayed last year. As a result, she is now under more pressure than ever to exclude international students from immigration figures.

This would not necessarily be politically damaging. A recent ComRes poll found that most members of the public do not view students as immigrants and believe more should be able to come to the UK in the future to study.

A change of tack would go a long way to reinforce the sector’s pleas that a post-Brexit Britain will continue to welcome students not just from the EU, but across the world.

With tuition fees continuing to rise, how might students’ expectations change?

In a recent ComRes poll, nearly half of students indicated that they saw themselves as customers. At the heart of this changing perception is the issue of value for money. Yet, worryingly for universities, the Higher Education Policy Institute has found that the proportion of students believing their course offered poor or very poor value for money has more than doubled in the last five years.

Despite this, students still value the relationship they have with their institution. A core element of this comes down to contact time with staff. For degree courses with historically low amounts of class time and a high degree of independent learning, principally those in the humanities, there will need to be a clear focus on improving the degree of personal contact and support students receive from academic staff.

Students also expect to be able to access key learning resources (e.g. e-books, lecture notes or students records etc.) anytime, anywhere and from any device. Universities will therefore need to invest in modern IT systems and sufficient networking infrastructure to underpin them.

Finally, how would you sum up the best ‘student experience’?

Students may have higher expectations when it comes to the quality of teaching and university services than ever before, but that does not mean they want to enter into a corporate relationship with institutions. They continue to place a huge amount of value on personal interaction, explaining why contact time with teaching staff is such a key issue.

A recent ComRes survey found that the majority of those who found their course to offer good value for money also highlighted the value of their relationship with their university. This means universities need to make sure they do not throw the baby out with the bathwater in adjusting to a greater customer focus.

What they can do is to put in place the services and facilities that offer students the chance for greater personal interaction and collaborative learning. Powerful new technologies such as learning analytics can also play a role.

For instance, this can examine the whole picture of the student experience, providing early intervention for struggling students and targeting support where it is most needed. This can help boost student satisfaction and retention rates, the latter more important than ever due to the potential loss of revenue for every dropout.    

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