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How to improve the student experience -- ask the students themselves

Jenny Shaw , Student Experience Director at Unite Students, draws lessons on the higher education sector's efforts to improve the student experience from a week of HE news and views.

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How to improve the student experience -- ask the students themselves

Jenny Shaw, Student Experience Director at Unite Students, draws lessons on the higher education sector's efforts to improve the student experience from a week of HE news and views.


“Whatever happened to the student experience?” asks Jim Dickinson as he looks back at an extraordinarily prescient article written by the late David Watson in 2006. What a great question, and the article set the tone for my round up of this week’s news in heady fog of retrofuturism.

The answer would appear to be that we should ask students themselves. In fact we should situate our understanding of that experience in students’ actual world view and lifestyle, not what we think they should want or how they should behave. It’s a great challenge that puts an unnerving perspective on some current policies. Having just commissioned a piece of in-depth research into student lifestyles and attitudes I am all for this, and I hope we can bring some useful perspectives to the table later this year.

“Students are also ahead of us in international perspectives,” said David Watson. Let’s hope so. The impact of international students on university finances was certainly underlined this week in the widely reported UCAS data release, which showed a 9 per cent increase in non-EU students offsetting the demographic dip in the UK. Nick Hillman of HEPI says in the Telegraph that this shows international students are not being put off by Brexit, however this is likely to be small comfort to Nigel Carrington, who tells The Guardian that his institution is anticipating a drop of 1000 EU students. We also learned that Norway is apparently telling its young people not to study in the UK.

Against the backdrop of this debate, perhaps no-one was entirely surprised when an anonymous academic raised concerns in the Guardian about their university recruiting ‘unsuitable’ international PhD students just for the money. It was a timely warning against the temptations of treating international students as a commodity.

There are student experience implications for UK students too, as Universities UK warns that the Erasmus scheme is under threat. In the meantime some universities are getting ahead of the game by securing a footprint in mainland Europe, with Lancaster scoping out a German campus and UCL recommitting to its joint masters’ programme with the Sorbonne. I would have liked to hear more from students themselves though. Do international students feel as though they are valued as scholars and individuals? Is an exchange scheme the way that students want to experience other cultures and interact with their international peers?

I was also surprised to learn that David Watson had predicted a rise in student mental health issues as the student population became more representative of the general population. There can be little doubt that student wellbeing is high on the agenda following its breakthrough into mainstream news last year. The tragic story of Lucy Spears, a Brighton University student who took her own life, continues the debate about the exact nature of the duty of care a university has to its students, and whether suicide can accurately be predicted and prevented. It’s reassuring, then, that the fantastic Student Minds team is progressing its work on the University Mental Health Charter which I am sure will bring a good blend of long term strategic thinking and practical solutions to the table.

However I’d like to give the last word to James Derounian who, in his piece for Wonkhe, says: “Excellence in teaching is surely so that individuals can live and prosper in unstable times; and contribute towards individual and collective betterment”. He goes on to talk about inspiration and encouragement as core aspects teaching, and such an emotionally intelligent approach is a refreshing contrast to all the metrics. I feel sure that David Watson would have approved.

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