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Key findings of the latest Student Academic Experience Survey from Advance HE and the Higher Education Policy Institute are outlined and examined by Jonathan Neves, Advance HE Head of Insights and co-author of a report on the survey results.
The Student Academic Experience Survey (SAES), published jointly by Advance HE and HEPI, has for the past 12 years been providing topical insight into the evolving perceptions of UK undergraduates.
One of the customary headlines centres around value for money, with the previous five years to 2017 seeing a consistent decline, to the point where almost as many students perceived poor value in their experience as good value. Encouragingly, this has been reversed in 2018, with a three percentage point increase (35% to 38%) in the proportion of students who see their experience as representing good or very good value. This has been driven by a statistically significant increase among students from England, although value in England remains relatively low.
As a result of a new question added this year, we now know what lies behind these value perceptions. Students who perceive good value are most likely to cite teaching quality driving their perception – as well as course facilities, career prospects and campus development, while students who perceive poor value are most likely to relate their perceptions to the level of tuition fees as well as, among other factors, the cost of living. Clearly, these cost-related factors are not something that universities can solve on their own, and help put into perspective the role of universities in delivering value.
We can speculate as to what may lie behind this year’s increase in value for money, but there appears little doubt that the last few years have seen a greater focus across the sector on teaching quality, not least through the TEF, and we now have evidence that teaching quality is key to value. There are also findings this year which highlight how TEF Gold institutions are more likely to deliver better value in the eyes of students in our sample.
For students who may be weighing up a decision on whether or not to go to university, there are now a wide range of alternative options available at age 18, including apprenticeships and other vocational choices. Despite this, however, the 2018 SAES shows that the large majority of students are happy with their choice. Two out of three students, looking back on their decision, would make the same choice of course and institution again given the chance, while only 5 per cent in total would make a very different decision and choose not to enter higher education.
Despite this evidence of a positive experience overall, our analysis highlights some groups of students who are not benefitting in the same way. We have seen before that where and how students live can have a bearing on their experience, and by analysing a new group of students this year – commuter students who live at home – we can see how living far away from both the university and other students can link through to a less satisfactory experience. By contrast, students who live with others in halls or shared houses report benefits in their learning development.
The 2018 SAES provides clear evidence that UK domiciled students of Asian ethnicity are less likely to have a satisfactory experience at university. The reasons behind this are unclear, but alongside lower perception of value and learning gain, Asian students are also more critical of teaching staff. Asian students show a high propensity to live at home and commute, which means that they may face logistical barriers during their time at university. However, we have conducted statistical analysis which has stripped out the impact of accommodation status on ethnic differences, and this has identified that irrespective of their living arrangements, Asian students still have a tendency to report a less positive experience. This is clearly an area where further investigation is required across the sector in order to fully understand the factors at play and ensure that institutions can take action to ensure a consistent experience for all.
Another issue that the 2018 SAES has raised is the notion of students’ attitudes to workload. Although there are numbers of students with very low levels of workload, there is increasing evidence that this is not what students are looking for. Levels of wellbeing and value for money are higher among students with highest workloads, and low levels of workload are most strongly linked to students questioning their decision to enter higher education.
These and other results across the survey highlight that students want to play an active role their university experience and recognise how time spent on study will bring them the benefits that they are looking for.
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