Student Experience Survey – Which uni is right for you?

Times Higher Education has published the results of its latest Student Experience Survey.  Regardless of whether or not you like league tables like this, the survey could help you get an idea of the type of university you’d be interested in being at (if you’re not yet at uni, of course…).

The important point to take away from this survey is that we’re all different and we’re not all looking for the same student experience.  Take two students and you’ll find that their experiences differ wildly, even if they are both students from the same university.

Wes Streeting, president of the NUS, says, “…students themselves determine the factors important in delivering a high-quality experience.”

That’s why you don’t necessarily want to be at the university rated Number One.  Loughborough has been top of the Times Higher Education survey for three years running and that’s impressive.  However, that doesn’t make a prospective student’s decision a no-brainer.  Eleanor Simmons, part of Opinionpanel (the company who undertook the survey’s research), agrees:

“What’s clear is that universities are offering and students are seeking quite different types of experiences.”

League tables are good for improving your understanding in how a certain university may benefit you and suit your wants and needs.  There are no answers, but there should be some helpful pointers to bring you closer to well-informed university choices.

photo by philmciverphoto by philmciverphoto by philmciver

photos by philmciver

Some questions you might like to ask when shortlisting possible uni choices:

  • Is the campus in a city, a small town, or in the middle of nowhere?
  • Are there any financial incentives on offer to me?
  • What are the sports facilities like?
  • How expensive is the area?
  • What is the accommodation like and is it guaranteed for new students?
  • How do the league tables rate my subject’s teaching quality at the universities?
  • Do I want to move away, or study nearby and commute from home?
  • How is the course structured to suit my learning?
  • What social facilities are on offer?
  • What is the campus atmosphere like?
  • How do current students rate the libraries, IT equipment and access, and other important study facilities?
  • What clubs can I join?
  • Is the campus split up, or all in one area?
  • What other types of assistance do the university offer to students?

Finally, to get a proper feel of a uni and to see if it ‘speaks’ to you, it’s wise to go to an open day.  Better still, you could try to spend some time nearby and get a flavour of the surrounding area.  From my own experience, an intensive visit can be worth more than all the prospectus promotion, league tables, and conversations put together.  So many past students have agreed with me that their choice of university often rested on an amazing open day visit.  And for some, the final choice can come as a surprise.  After being certain that one place had it all, a disappointing open day can destroy it and open the way for another institution to sweep you off your feet.

There’s only so much vibe you can get from a survey.

photo by P D

photo by P D


  1. I agree with most of this. One thing that academics get annoyed about though is the teaching quality assessments which form part of several league tables. The methods used to assess teaching quality are hardly scientific, and the infrequency of visits means that the information on which the assessment is based might be ten or more years old. If we stay with the league table analogy, it’s like claiming Nottingham Forest are a top football team because they were in the Premier League in 1999. I think league tables for universities are as crass as those for schools. Are we surprised that our local fee-paying public school has better GCSE results than the bog-standard comp?
    In my case, I work at a university in the lower reaches of the tables. That doesn’t make it bad. In fact, several subjects were rated world class in the RAE, student satisfaction surveys are consistently high, etc etc. We are not, and never will be, Oxford or Durham or Warwick, the Chelseas and Arsenals of HE. But we can be a good, well-run and successful institution in our own field, like, say, Wigan or Swansea in football terms.

  2. Rob, you say ‘never’, but as so much of Higher Education is forever changing, anything is possible. And even a bottom division university can still prove the premier institution for certain students. It’s never clear cut.

    You’re right about out of date information. Even recent league tables can omit crucial new detail. I’ve heard the National Student Survey can feel behind at times, where final year students base their answers on past problems that have since been ironed out.

    Other than the fear of information (and data) overload, I think these reports and tables are good for prospective students to gain an idea, but never an answer.

  3. OK, never say never. But I really can’t see us overhauling Oxbridge or London etc.
    And we certainly are the premier institution for quite a few things, particularly in education and health.
    I have to disagree about the league tables though- they make a very simplistic analogy, which just doesn’t stack up. If a football team gets more points than anyone else, they win the league, and, by and large, are demonstrably the best that year. But Higher Education is a far more complex field, and to use tables feeds a pernicious culture of competition (and incidentally syphons off loads of money that might be spent on, er, education) for, in my view, no measurable gain. And I’m not sure it helps potential students either- are you really going to say ” I loved university x at its open day, but I’m going to university y about which I know nothing, because it’s five places higher up.
    As for the NSS, my institution, and my department have done well, but I am still uneasy. Take up isn’t particularly high, and one imagines that someone with a grudge would be more likely to complete the survey than someone who thinks things are fine. In the part of Manchester where I live, there was a local election last week. The winner is portrayed in the paper as winning by a landslide – she got twice as many votes as her nearest rival. But actually, the biggest group amongst the electors comprised those who didn’t bother to vote. Their numbers dwarf the collected votes of all the candidates by two to one. But “Apathy reigns as most people don’t vote” isn’t much of a headline. Similarly, “Tiny proportion of students say they’re not happy” wouldn’t be the chosen headline in the Daily Mail, but would probably be the most accurate thing they could say about the NSS.
    My advice to students would be to ignore the tables. Go to open days, talk to staff, walk around the campus, see the facilities and ask yourself whether you’d be happy in these buildings, with these people, following this subject, for three years. If the answer is no, or not sure, keep on looking. If it’s yes, you know what to do.

  4. League tables are too simplistic and there are too many uncertainties, yes, but I don’t think it makes them entirely useless.

    From an academic standpoint, there are many things you could better do with the time and money. However, prospective students (and parents, of course) want to get an initial idea of particular elements that could most impinge upon that person’s life. You’re right that nobody is going to love a uni’s open day and then choose somewhere slightly higher on a table…because using the league tables would probably come first, in order to get a manageable list of unis to compare and visit. If they could visit every single institution, great. But they’re more likely to find suitable sounding suggestions from what they read and the tables they check. At that point they’ll start (hopefully) attending open days for an actual feel. Only if they still couldn’t decide would they perhaps need to refer to certain league tables again for that final push (less likely, but possible).

    Some institutions have witnessed first hand the actions of students bearing a grudge and skewing the NSS. While I disagree with the actions in the main, it may be the only tactic they think will get a university to listen. I agree that a tiny proportion of students can cause an upset where it doesn’t genuinely reflect the majority feeling, but if the NSS doesn’t already highlight the percentage of eligible respondents taking part at each institution, perhaps it should (I haven’t checked to see whether this is possible and already the case).

    I totally agree that the open day is the big deal. Almost everyone I speak to who went to several open days can tell me that they made their final choice based on the feeling they had when visiting a particular uni. It’s what happened for me too. Open days are the clinchers.

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