Improving Student Experience in Higher Education in 2021: Where Are We At?

Student experience is a very broad term within the remit of higher, university-based education. While many universities have their own bespoke definitions, each of these will bear key similarities.

The focus is placed upon providing an inclusive environment of outstanding teaching and quality of life so the student experience is the culmination of fair recruitment practices, meeting consumer right’s standards (in that undergraduates and postgraduates both have consumer rights that a university must comply to), equality and student wellbeing. It also importantly covers creating avenues of opportunity for disenfranchised or minority demographics.

So what is the current landscape of the practice in the UK? How do you go about improving the student experience?

Inclusivity in UK Universities

Universities have a responsibility to implement language, behaviours and teaching practices that facilitate the opportunity for an outstanding student experience for all learners. This means that equality and diversity should be seen as crucial pillars of a university’s Student Experience strategy.

With regards to this, there’s a large amount of legislation in place that universities must abide by. For example, the requirement for universities to deliver an inclusive student experience for all  is brought into effect by the below legislation

Issues caused by a lack of inclusivity disproportionately affect students who belong to minority groups. These are ones that are represented by race, gender, sexuality, physical ability or other differentiators such as social mobility and financial background.

Evidently, everyone is entitled to a good, supportive, inclusive university experience should they want to pursue that goal. If universities work within the parameters defined in the above legislation, they can provide fairer environments for all. 

Student Experience Today

In the year 2016/17, the percentage of university dropouts after the first year of study was 6.3%, down by 0.1% from the previous education year. It has slowly grown throughout the last few years, which has been attributed to rises in university course fees.

However, it’s still a significantly lower percentage than that of around twenty years ago, when the dropout rate was 7.8%.

What we can judge from figures like these is that, regardless of university costs, overall student experience is slowly but surely getting better. 

In 2019, 84% of students surveyed said they were satisfied with the quality of their chosen course. On top of that:

  • 86% of students surveyed gave the two most positive answers when it came to learning resources.
  • 73% gave the two most positive answers on assessment and feedback.
  • 76% gave the two most positive answers on the learning community created.

However, only 56% of students had positive remarks about their respective student unions, meaning that the overall democratisation of university life is something that needs improving. 

The National Student Survey (where these results were drawn from) does show good overall satisfaction for students in the UK. Unfortunately, it does not take into account the voices of disenfranchised university hopefuls who were unable to attend. It also may miss the opinions of those who did not get the opportunity to state their concerns and may not have the correct format for allowing detailed discourse.

This can be amended by universities providing the surveys themselves, so that larger amounts of their own students can offer their unique takes, specific to the environment they’re in. 

How Do We Improve Student Experience in Higher Education?

Student experience isn’t just about providing an environment where a person can advance from a 2:1 to a first – as we’ve stated, it’s about creating a fair and supportive environment. It’s also about revamping education structures in a way that provides for all, meaning that each student should be able to have their say.

So how can universities work to improve student experience? 

Architectural Planning and Collaborative Spaces

The physical space of a university campus is an incredibly important aid to the student’s experience. It can actually be seen as a physical manifestation of an effective student experience strategy. 

The first thing universities need to do to create inclusive physical spaces is make them accessible. This means access for any students who have physical disabilities and can include, but is not limited to, providing lifts and ramps. This is a significant inclusion, as in 2017, 13.2% of students that attended an English university or college reported having at least one disability.

Campus space should also represent the community and collaborative culture that universities work towards.

The Learning Spaces Consultant, Duncan Peberdy, has recently been advocating for an idea of the ‘sticky campus’ – spaces where students will want to stick around even if they have no lecture to go to. This means spaces that are useful for both individual and group work, study spaces that are not just a library. 

The environment needs to be a reflection of a university’s student experience policies, meaning that everywhere needs to be both accessible and add to the student journey.

A Co-Authored Curriculum

To create an inclusive curriculum, it needs to represent a broad range of voices. Students should be given the opportunity to give feedback on their courses. In this, they can raise any issues where they feel the material isn’t helpful or doesn’t accurately reflect the learning objectives of the course. This is especially important when it comes to including minority voices in core subjects.

This may be in the form of student feedback surveys or even direct action led by a student union. To create the best type of student experience, the student needs to be front-and-centre when it comes to curriculum design. They’re as much a part of the process as the professor, research staff or teaching and learning department.

For example, at Loughborough University, the student representatives have become more closely involved in how the curriculum is delivered. The Vice-Chancellor of Loughborough University, Robert Allison, told the Guardian in 2017: “One of the things that’s really important is that the university strategy and the student union strategy don’t sit in isolation.”

This is one way of achieving student buy-in, and therefore, a higher level of inclusivity and overall satisfaction.

Creating More Democratic, Inclusive Campuses

University campuses need to crack down hard on any instances of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia or ableism to create fair environments for all. Those who benefit the least from the status quo are the most likely to want and campaign for change.

These are the voices that need to be listened to. 

In practice, this means serious ramifications for anyone committing any of the above prejudices. It also means providing support and counselling for anyone in need, for any reason. 

Finally, it means providing the means for students to not only participate in the democratisation of university life, but to also protest when they disagree with something the university announces.

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