Enhancing the Student Experience…one panel at a time

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If you were to ask me ‘how can we enhance the student experience?’, the first thing I’d do is debunk the concept entirely. The ‘student experience’ is generic, its broad brush painting the idea of a homogenous, maleable entity whose university life and satisfaction can be molded into the most pleasing shape. This is probably why I don’t get invited to speak at these kinds of events. So when I attended the Universities UK Conference, one week after visiting a conversation event with The Student Engagement Partnership, I was hoping to hear something almost radical. This radicalism however, seemed more like seasoning than the main course.

It could be seen, however. The first chair of the day, University of Roehampton VC Professor Paul O’Prey, stressed that ‘high quality learning and teaching is of course part of the student experience’. Radical not because it places hi-q learning and teaching as THE most important part of the student experience, but because attention is at least paid to its presence. In cricketing terms, this was a leg bye, keeping the score ticking along with a bit of luck. However, Professor O’Prey noted that there ‘aren’t many universities with a homogenous student body’. This would qualify as a boundary scoring 4 runs. And in the course of 5 minutes, perhaps the opening over of the one-day conference test, 5 off the over wasn’t bad. But almost as if they were taking their form from the England cricket team, this is where the form stopped.

The NUS Vice-President for Higher Education Megan Dunn spoke first during the morning’s panel, emphasising the importance of providing activities that students find transformational, describing the aim as ‘personal and intellectual transformation [for] every student’. Discussion of partnership agreements, Scottish HE’s answer to student chareters, expectations of students being met by the provision of their institutions and a shared language for a shared agenda were all great sentiments, but didn’t rock the boat. These are sentiments that the university managers in the room nodded at, the administrators almost saluted but one felt this message would be forgotten almost as soon as the session ended. But the importance of partnership with our Students’ Unions ended her speech, and again you felt the runs were starting to become more frequent. Until BIS entered the building.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills HE Quality, Access and Governance representative tried to pretend the scoreline was more favourable than it is. Talk of UK HE developing students as learning partners and teaching students how to learn returned to the ‘student experience’ blanket I hoped we could avoid. Student support, learning resources and student engagement were said to have improved across the sector, the Key Information Set is offering students more choice than ever before and acknowledgement of concerns around the efforts of HEIs in tracking their students to ensure they aren’t falling behind offer a mixed bag of perceptions. Admissions also that NSS bunching around 85% doesn’t help anyone in the sector and, even more startling, a view that learning and teaching shouldn’t fall behind research as an institutional priority felt almost inspirational, if not sidestepping the fact that the findings of the Research Excellence Framework are the top priority for many HEIs.

And if you needed the question ‘are students consumers?’ answered, then the Competition and Markets Authority (formally Office for Fair Traiding and Competition Commission) have the answer – yes they are. Wickets begin to tumble. Guidance is being given to universities and their students regarding students’ rights under consumer protection law, and sadly the CMA state a key driver for compliance with these laws is a perceived urgency from students to exercise their rights as consumers. By the CMAs own admission, the language of ‘rights’ is a challenge to maintaining (and this author would add, instilling) partnership between institutions and their students. But that consultation on guidance is currently underway between HEIs and CMA over advice for information provision, clear terms and conditions and complaints handling practices emphasises the fact that the marketisation agenda is not going away any time soon. Compliance with consumer protection from unfair trading practices, consumer contracts and unfair terms in consumer contracts is also up for consultation. This consultation will end on the 18th December, with the final publication due in February 2015.

In the space of 90 minutes we saw a microcosm of the current dilemma HE faces. Students are calling for pragmatic, tactile connection and partnership with their institutions, the government are talking about the market and its effectiveness and watchdogs are attempting to rationalise consumerism and student faith with regulation. But it doesn’t sit right, and it doesn’t help the view of student experience in the homogenous sense become less prominent. My notes from the rest of the day can be found here and there is some good stuff in there from the VC at Oxford Brookes, who called for the following principles to be our future open dialogue, shared understanding, shared idea of success, dynamic learning communities, mutual respect, authentic, and presence of a framework for partnership. Whilst this was the most interesting part of the day, the rest offered little applicable insight and in many ways, sat unaware in the midst of an ageing view of the student body as just that – singular.

Presentations from the day can be found here: http://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/events/Pages/EnhancingtheStudentExperience.aspx

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