Secrets of Sheffield’™s success

Topping the Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey is no mean feat, according to the University of Sheffield

Hannah Oakman spoke to The University of Sheffield’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul White to find out how it’s done…

✥ How important have ‘student experience’ and satisfaction tables become to universities today?

Professor Paul White: Recognition of the importance of the wider student experience has clearly grown in recent years. Employers want more than just a student with a particular degree classification – they want more rounded individuals who have developed in ways beyond their discipline through their period at university, for example through volunteering, community work, sport, enterprise activities and so on.  And students are looking for more too. There are too many league tables produced for them all to have real relevance. Candidates are bombarded with conflicting data sets: they often fall back on personal recommendations, or on the ‘feel’ of an institution when they visit.

✥ Why do you believe that Sheffield topped the recent Student Experience Survey?

PW:We try to see what we offer students as being a very rounded package. In addition to well-organised degree programmes, we also aim to provide great co-curricular and extra-curricular opportunities and to do so within a very friendly environment. 

✥ How do you work in partnership with students and the Student Union to maintain your lead in this area?

PW:Student participation rates in elections are high and this gives student officers a strong mandate to work with the University on shared goals and projects. Officers have direct and personal access to members of the University Executive through a one-on-one buddying scheme.  Students sit on almost every significant committee in the university, and are even closely involved in our discussions with our funding body – HEFCE. Engaging students in key decisions is in the DNA of the institution.

✥ How hard is it for universities today to keep up with all aspects of student experience – teaching, social spaces and entertainment, learning spaces, accommodation and new developments?

PW:It takes considerable resource to do this, and we have to ensure that resources are well used.  Student opinion on what is most important is crucial to our decision-making. For example, in 2011–12 we had extensive discussions with students about what extra facilities they wanted to see, and by 2015 we will have delivered almost everything on the ‘shopping list’ that emerged.

✥ Do you think UK universities could learn lessons in student experience from overseas or is the UK leading the way?

PW:I think the UK is still leading the way in this. It is not easy getting the balance right between high-quality disciplinary education and the development of wider skills through further experiences. But UK universities tend still to be among the best at doing so.

✥ What do you believe the students of the future will be looking for from their HE choices, especially if tuition fees continue to rise?

PW:The danger for the future may actually be if tuition fees continue to be pegged below inflation, or if they are reduced after the forthcoming election. Were that to happen, all UK universities would all have to make very difficult decisions about what to retain and what is expendable from the wider student experience.

While Sheffield’s success in the recent survey is clearly gratifying, we are not resting on our laurels. In particular, we are now introducing a series of faculty- and university-wide projects to help to prepare our students even more effectively for the challenges of the world into which they will graduate.


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