“The experience of the student is at the heart of higher education.”
This sentence is the first thing you read in a recent report on “Students and Universities” that made the headlines on Sunday. The report makes it clear that university is about YOU, the student. No doubt about it. Without you, life in higher education would be very different.
The report suggests many changes, including:
- A national bursary system to “widen the participation of disadvantaged groups in higher education”;
- Ensure universities make prospective students aware of all bursaries available and set out easy to follow information on its provision;
- Improve the admissions process to “help ensure students get a fairer deal on access to all universities”;
- Change of the current HE system so it can provide and safeguard “consistent national standards”;
- Introduce of a system that allows students to transfer easily between universities (and further education institutions);
- Improve the treatment of part-time and mature students.
It is welcoming to see a report that’s so focused on the student. The authors applaud the National Student Survey (NSS) and call on the Government to expand it further to help prospective students even more.
One of the best comments in the report comes from a student. They make a fantastic point, saying, “If I were to use one phrase to encapsulate which makes or breaks a student experience it would be getting involved. The endless opportunities available at university are wasted if students are not properly encouraged to embrace them and push themselves.”
This is something I firmly believe in. It doesn’t matter where you go or what you study…it’s your level of involvement that can take you places. Your uni and degree subject help in certain circumstances, don’t get me wrong, but you have a lot of power if you get stuck in and enjoy the opportunities out there.
Another student, Ricky Chotai (Vice-President for Health and Social Care at the University of Salford), makes a “famous quote” in the report. He says, “There’s nothing more frustrating when you go to a lecture and you have a lecturer just reading Powerpoint slides, especially when they are available at other sources like on the internet and the virtual learning environments we have as well”. Teaching is obviously a big deal when it comes to the student experience. So you want each lecture to count. And you want the teaching, as well as the subsequent degree award, to be in line with teaching elsewhere.
But Higher Education is such a beast that it’s practically impossible to bring everyone in line and have ‘consistent national standards’ based on the current method of awarding. That’s why new grading systems such as the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR) recommend a greater spread of information based on what was studied and achieved over the course of a degree. To rely on a grade of 2:1 alone may no longer be enough.
Because of this, there is a lot of talk in the news about the difference between a 2:1 from Oxford and a 2:1 from Oxford Brookes. I won’t talk about it here, because the links at the end of my post give more than enough detail.
League tables, institution choices, and entry requirements show a clear difference between universities and the wide choice given to students of differing ability, purpose, and situation. It is comparing the degrees and the institutions at a later stage, especially by employers, that causes most problems. Again, that is what the HEAR system attempts to cover.
Another current issue is that of tuition fees. I’m happy to see the report calling for a national bursary system as this will give a welcome boost to the NUS calls for a new system of higher education funding. The conversation has just become even more important.
On Sunday morning, I watched Wes Streeting (current president of the NUS) on BBC Breakfast, talking about the new report. He later mentioned on Twitter that he had “Just been told off by Pam Tatlow of Million+ for shoehorning fees into news this morning”. The authors of the universities report mention that they hadn’t set out to look at tuition fees and the controversy surrounding them. But they “detected no evidence that variable tuition fees at current levels were driving up quality on campus”, so I think it was fair for Streeting to point this out, even if the report talks of much more.
So how can consistent standards and greater quality be reached across all universities? Is such consistency possible in a community so diverse? Probably not in its current guise. The ‘unsatisfactory’ responses received regarding qualifications suggest the entire system may need to be changed to reach any effective conclusion. Therefore, giving the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) greater power and introducing an independent standards watchdog may not be enough, even though it’s a welcome move in many ways.
The right support is needed for all students. And there are many different ‘types’ of student. The report makes this clear. We go to university for different reasons, be they academic, vocational, social, or otherwise. There are those studying part-time, as well as full-time. There are mature students, as well as school leavers. People from all walks of life attend university and the spread is likely to further diversify in the coming years.
If top class support can be given to all students throughout their uni life, the subsequent qualifications they achieve should be relevant and highly suited to them, no matter what their requirements are on the system.
With enough focus on the student experience, higher education in England can not only retain it’s world-class status, it can get even better. I think this report hits the bullseye by placing students at the heart of HE.
BBC – Universities ‘fail on standards’
BBC – Are degree grades worth the same?
Guardian – ‘Dumbing down’ row over value of degrees
Guardian – How do we tell the good universities from the bad?
Telegraph – Universities told to lower their offers for poor students
Times Higher Education – Beef up QAA to police sector, say MPs
Times Higher Education – Opinion: Right questions, wrong answer