The Honest Marketer

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

On the right track?

“The pressure is on institutions to raise their game” - these were the opening remarks at the fifth annual conference on Enhancing the Student Experience in London this week.

Professor Michael Farthing, Chair of the 1994 Group and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sussex, opened the conference by noting that with the changes in the sector over the last 12 months and the tripling of fees, “students now have the highest ever expectations and we are all going to have to work much harder to make the case for investing in higher education.”

As we approach the anniversary of the Government’s decision to support the rise in tuition fees, he pointed out that raising fees offered the only answer to the Government’s 80% cuts in university funding to enable universities to maintain let alone make improvements to the student experience, but reflected that the speed of the change was too much asking: “What else has tripled in price?”

Professor Farthing warned universities to avoid falling into the trap of reducing HE to “a set of transactions”, which he felt “grossly underestimates the value of HE”. He said that students were more than consumers purchasing a degree certificate and that “the student experience draws on every aspect of life and work and is long lasting” with “students immersing themselves in an academic environment, joining new social networks and gaining insights that will stay with them throughout their lives.”

I agreed with much of the sentiment of Professor Farthing’s address. What I took issue with were his comments that “research intensive universities offer the best teaching experience” where students are taught by the people who write the text books and have “access to a culture of innovation“. Given the institutions he represents, his perspective is to be expected, but I think that his own view underestimates the value of HE in the many other types of institution that are not research intensive. (And, yes, having spent a career working mostly in universities that are not research intensive, with a father who lectured in a former Polytechnic, my perspective is also to be expected).

Don’t get me wrong, research does have a critical role: it is a fundamental part of academia and greatly benefits our society and economy. When that research can inform and enhance teaching, students undoubtedly benefit - they have an opportunity to shape, learn from and experience new ideas. But research is not the only means of generating a good (or indeed the best student experience) or a culture of innovation: it can be achieved through other aspects in the broader learning and teaching experience - student partnership, engagement with industry/the professions, development of employability skills and so on. To suggest otherwise is somewhat of an injustice.

By far the majority of the conference chose to focus on student partnership as a means of improving the student experience. Liam Burns, President of the National Union of Students, said that there needed to be “a redistribution of power” and that engagement with students needed to be part of what drives the system. Student consultation does already exist in universities with student representation on most key committees, but I liked his idea of students taking an active role in agreeing the strategic direction and planning of universities with a voice in all key decisions and co-sign-off of strategic documents.

I was delighted when Sean Mackney,
Deputy Chief Executive of the Higher Education Academy, pulled out BCU’s Student Partnership Scheme, which pairs up students with academics to improve the learning experience, as a best practice example of "continuous student engagement in an institution that's committed to continuous improvement in its learning and teaching". See He’s not alone in his views - the scheme won the 2010 Times Higher Education Outstanding Support for Students Award.

Sean too acknowledged the need for a change in the power relationships between students and staff with a “sharing of power” that sees “students take responsibility for learning and universities involving them as a member of the learning community”. Describing this scenario as adding challenge and vibrancy to the relationship, he explained: “Students learn better when they are actively engaged with the curriculum, co-curricular activity and the University itself”.

Though we have world-leading and world-class research in Art and Design, Music, English, Social Work and Social Policy and Administration, Birmingham City University is not a research intensive university. However, we have an award-winning Student Academic Partnership scheme that is now being expanded as part of a Change Academy project. We recently employed our outgoing President of the Students’ Union to review student communications as part of enhancing the student experience. And the second objective of our new Corporate Plan is: “To be an exemplar for student engagement, working in partnership with students to create and deliver an excellent university experience and achieve high levels of student satisfaction and graduate employment.”

The pressure is on and, like many universities, we’ve got a long way to go. But I think we’re on the right track when it comes to developing and delivering the best student experience.

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