Student satisfaction, HE success

It has been a successful year for student satisfaction, despite a volatile policy landscape, says Professor Eunice Simmons

What lessons have we learned over the last academic year that will help us prepare for the year ahead? 

The messages from Government about cost-savings and efficiency are being heard loud and clear, and universities need to be on the front foot in these discussions – particularly in demonstrating how they use tuition fees wisely. There is no doubt that the application of consumer legislation to HE will present some challenges for current university systems and require professional services and academic staff to jointly review their approach to the student journey and the overall student experience.

What were the major developments during the last academic year? Has it been a successful year for UK HE?

Overall it has been a highly successful year with continuing rise in demand and undergraduate student satisfaction despite a volatile policy landscape.

Removing the cap on student numbers is one of the most debated topics in UK higher education. How will this affect the UK HE scene this year?

An individual institution’s undergraduate recruitment plans may well be disrupted by the removal of the cap on student numbers and the subsequent behaviour of competitors. Competition for good quality entrants will be particularly marked between mid-ranking institutions, and there’s the distinct possibility that universities will target applicants for subjects strategically important to their mission such as STEM.

It has been reported that grants given to students could be cut as part of savings the Department for Business needs to make, what do you think of this, and what impact will it have on UK HE overall?

The Government has announced the move from grants to loans and, as students will be able to borrow more than the current grant regime, it is to be hoped that this is not a deterrent for widening participation applicants.

UK universities are constantly having to compete with international institutions to stay at the top of the world rankings, and attract the best students from all over the world. Are we on the right track to stay competitive, or are there potential pitfalls ahead?

Although there is still demand for UK HE from international students, the UK Government’s unwelcoming stance is in stark contrast to the approach being taken by other English speaking countries keen to increase international numbers. On a visit to universities in Canada last month with the Leadership Foundation, I saw strategies in place guaranteeing generous scholarships and work placements for overseas students as part of Canada’s drive to attract and retain new, well-educated citizens. How much longer will UK HE be able to compete with these approaches?

‘Universities need to continue to lobby government to evidence the harm the current visa regime is doing to this valuable and value-rich business.’

The government has pledged to “reform the student visa system,” but universities have previously warned that the drive to reduce net migration is harming recruitment of international students. What can universities do to help push their agenda forward?

Universities need to continue to lobby government to evidence the harm the current visa regime is doing to this valuable and value-rich business. There is also a significant likelihood that new measures will impact on the recruitment of international staff – from post-doctorals to professors – which will greatly harm the UK sector.

The Prime Minister has pledged to hold an in-out referendum on the UK’s EU membership by 2017. What does this mean for UK HE?

This may lead to a surge in interest in university places from Continental European students keen to access the loans system before anything changes. The UK benefits from research funding via the EU and no doubt there will be concerns about this.

What are the biggest challenges facing the sector for the next year?

All universities will be engaging with the newly proposed Teaching Excellence Framework – and no doubt hoping that the metrics chosen will reflect well on their institution. If their teaching quality meets the yet to be determined requirements of this framework it will enable them to pursue inflationary fee increases from 2017.  It is to be hoped that a broad view of success will be taken to include, for example, evidence of employer involvement and satisfaction.

Professor Eunice Simmons is the Pro Vice-Chancellor Academic at Nottingham Trent University.

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