Time of their lives?

From facilities to social and welfare issues, Steve Wright quizzes six experts on how to create the best student experience


Bill Rammell – Vice-Chancellor, University of Bedfordshire and former Higher Education Minister

Professor Jon Reast – Pro Vice-Chancellor (International), Northumbria University

Simon Smith – Student & Learning Services Manager and Deputy Head, Glasgow Caledonian University London

Professor Malcolm Todd – Pro Vice-Chancellor for Student Experience, University of Derby

Colin Farquhar – Founder and CEO, Exterity, leading provider of enterprise IP video technologies

Peter Taylor Strategic Director, Sodexo Universities


Q. What best illustrates the excellent student experience you are offering? 

Bill Rammell: At the University of Bedfordshire, we believe that higher education means much more than just getting a degree. The smart skills gained by, for example, our unique Go Global initiative offering summer schools in China and Vietnam inspire our students to become entrepreneurial global citizens. 

We also consider ourselves unique in the ways we listen to and work with our students. For example, the President of Beds Students’ Union is a full member of the Vice-Chancellor’s Executive Group, taking part in University decision-making as an equal with the rest of the team. 

Simon Smith: Our postgraduate students benefit from an ultra-modern learning environment in the heart of Spitalfields, one of London’s most attractive locations. Our community atmosphere ensures all the staff supporting these services are very accessible, operating an open-door policy. Additionally, GCU London is proactive in providing an outstanding student experience, offering in-session English language support to improve the outcomes of all students, as well as activities and events to foster friendships and peer support for students.

Malcolm Todd: The University of Derby has invested significantly in developing new learning spaces and facilities for our students. Most recently, we built our award-winning, state-of-the-art £11m sports centre: we also recently took possession of the striking One Friar Gate Square in the heart of Derby, which has been specifically designed internally to house our Derby Law School and Social Science Department. Currently we are building new science and engineering facilities – plus our new Chesterfield campus which will open later this year, providing outstanding facilities for our College of Health and Social Care. We are also a leading UK provider of online learning and have several thousand students studying with us from all over the world. We lead the sector in this area and we plan to expand our provision significantly in coming years.

Colin Farquhar: Exterity’s integrated IP video and digital signage solutions can help set universities apart from the pack. Its IP-based solutions are cost-effective, flexible and scalable to accommodate any installation size and any number of devices for a wide variety of educational and entertainment uses. From receptions to cafeterias, classrooms, libraries, hallways and anywhere in-between, IP video and digital signage can distribute content that greatly enhances the student experience and campus communications.
Peter Taylor: Our biennial University Lifestyle Survey takes in the views of over 2,000 students at higher education institutions across the UK, looking at all aspects of student life and the services offered to students by their university. As such, the survey provides us with the data required to adjust and improve our service offers and provide strategic partnership to our clients. 

Also important are the Student Experience Managers that we provide at all major contracts. Managing our relationship with students, Sodexo’s Student Experience Managers play a vital role in helping us deliver great service on the ground.

Q. What recent developments at your campus best show your commitment to boosting student experience? 

BR: We recently announced plans to build a new £40m building devoted to teaching and research in STEM subjects at our Luton Campus. The four-storey building will incorporate 6000 sq m of teaching and laboratory space, allowing us to offer a wide range of new science courses including Pharmacy, Nutrition, Physics, Biochemistry, Chemistry, Geology and Mechanical Engineering. This development marks the culmination of a huge investment in facilities at our campuses. Just this summer, for example, we opened a stunning seven-storey library, available for this autumn’s intake. 

SS: Student feedback is hugely important at GCU London. Our new ‘Debrief the Dean’ event provides outgoing students with a platform to give balanced and thorough feedback based on their entire year with us.

MT: We have recently launched our new learning and teaching strategy with a revised approach to employability. As part of a suite of activities, we will be offering all on-campus undergraduate students enrolling from September the opportunity to engage in real-world learning. We will work with local, regional and national employers to ensure that this is of high quality.

Q. Are we doing enough to ensure that international students have the best possible experience? And what are the potential effects of Brexit for our European students?

BR: EU students play a vital role in life at the University of Bedfordshire, and are valued members of our student community. Knowing that finance would be a major concern for many EU students, we moved to guarantee student loan finance for all EU students who are currently eligible, on the same terms offered by the Student Loans Company. We will also guarantee that EU student fees will not exceed those for UK students for the next five years.

Jon Reast: We work hard to ensure that all of our students, both home and international, have an excellent experience here at Northumbria University. Our recent placing third in the International Student Barometer bears that out.

In the short term, Brexit has no effect whatsoever for European students coming to study in the UK. European students starting their programmes this autumn will have access to the governmental student loan facilities, just like their British compatriots, for the full duration of their degrees.

And, while one might expect a decline in student numbers from Europe as a result of the vote, we are finding that our firm acceptances from European students are up on last year. However, the impact on the Erasmus exchange scheme in the coming years will very much depend on the UK’s EU exit negotiations.

SS: I would like to see the exclusion of international students in net migration targets – and the government doing more to promote the value of international students to UK economy and employment. Until this happens, I fear that the UK will continue to fall behind countries such as Canada and Australia, especially as a destination for international undergraduates. 

MT: Derby is consistently recognised by the International Student Barometer as a leader in supporting international students. We have a bespoke and tailored package that embraces not just academic study but social and cultural activities as well. 

The Brexit vote has been a shock for many universities in the UK. We were quick to reassure our existing and new students that immediate arrangements were in place to ensure that their studies were not affected. We are now working with Universities UK and other agencies to explore implications on student mobility, European research funding, etc. It is important that we look for creative opportunities in the decision to leave the EU – and consider how our students can continue to engage with study in the EU.

Q. With the cap on student numbers lifted, how can universities realistically offer a high-quality experience to all their students?

BR: Enhancing the student experience was embedded in our Corporate Plan 2012–17, and the lifting of the student number cap hasn’t changed that priority. During that period we have seen rapid improvements in our National Student Survey scores, and in 2014 we were the country’s most improved university. 2016 saw students on all of our English-based courses, as well as those on our Creative Writing, Media Production and Social Work courses, revealed as the most satisfied university students in the country. 

JR: The number cap has been removed over a period of a few years, and I wouldn’t predict a huge surge in university intake in the coming years. The removal of the cap has led to some redistribution of students across the sector, as stronger universities are able to take more students, and weaker universities suffer losses.
As one of the UK’s largest universities, Northumbria has fared extremely well following the removal of the number cap, and has chosen to raise its average entry-point tariff over the period to focus on high-quality students rather than taking a larger volume of students with lower grades. As a result of this strategy Northumbria now has a higher average-entry quality than some established universities.

CF: A lifted cap on student numbers could open the doors for increased part-time, distance and exchange students. As the delivery of IP video content is available to wired and mobile screens across any network, including LAN, WAN, Wi-Fi, internet and Content Delivery Networks, learning opportunities are available in and beyond the classroom walls. 

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

JR: The main change in student expectations probably came when tuition fees increased from £3,000 to £9,000 three to four years ago – a huge change for students. 

In terms of planned increases in fees, the government is considering allowing inflationary increases, which in the first instance would be a move from £9,000 to £9,250 – not the seismic change of a few years ago. 

We don’t expect these relatively small increases to make much difference to student numbers, perceptions or expectations here at Northumbria.

PT: Students are definitely concerned about the rising cost of university and life in general. That message came through loud and clear in our latest University Lifestyle Survey, which found that 48% of students were worried about their day-to-day finances – and that nearly a third anticipated their debt at graduation to top £40,000. Worryingly, 40% did not believe their expected debt was acceptable in terms of their future career prospects, up from 28% in 2014 and 18% in 2012. 

As a result, students are looking for a first-class university experience, from quality accommodation (usually with en suite bathrooms) via the latest e-learning tools and innovative social spaces to more face-to-face time with tutors.

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

JR: For us, it’s a combination of high-quality, engaging and challenging degree programmes, delivered in a supportive environment by academics who are passionate about their subject areas, and keen to integrate their research into their teaching. Alongside this, high-quality, friendly and professional administration staff help the student on their learning journey. And, for many of our students a great experience means participating in sport at a variety of levels from entry level to elite. Finally, the end of a great student experience is high-quality graduate-level employment. Northumbria University regularly performs in the UK top 10 for employability.

PT: At Sodexo, we believe in helping students to get the most from their time at university – from an academic, social and a personal perspective. Our offers include providing employment opportunities, invitations to join our Student Board of Directors, internships and work placements, and business mentoring. Socially, we support great freshers’ events, provide cookery demonstrations and classes, organise social activities and provide support to clubs and societies. 

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