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The personal statement has been honed, the courses carefully chosen and the offers are starting to arrive. Soon prospective students will be waiting for their exam results to finally determine which university they will attend.
But if the sixth-formers planning to start university this autumn had been making their decisions a year later - when the cap on tuition fees will treble to £9,000 - would they have approached the application process differently?
“The research would be even more important. If you were paying that much you’d have to be 100 per cent certain,” says Andrew Price, 17, a student at Pershore High School, a comprehensive in Worcestershire.
Fellow pupil Rebecca Dawkes, who has applied to study earth sciences, agrees.
“I’d think more carefully about where I was going. I’d probably go for a three-year course rather than a four-year course,” she says, reasoning that this would save her the cost of an additional year of fees.
Although many details of the 2012 funding regime and its impact on both students and institutions remain unclear, universities can be certain of one thing - the hike in the tuition fee cap will mean greater-than-ever student scrutiny.
Times Higher Education’s annual Student Experience Survey, which gathers the views of more than 13,000 undergraduates, explores the factors that matter most to them - from the quality of teaching to the social life on campus.
Students were asked to rate on a seven-point scale 21 aspects of university life that - unlike those of other surveys - were chosen by students themselves (see box, below).
Although most students see good teaching, enthusiastic staff and a well-structured course as vital, the THE survey shows just how important social and environmental aspects can be.
Across the sector, some areas of the student experience have seen improvements since 2008. These include security, high-quality facilities, helpful and interested staff, relationships with teaching staff, and fair workload. And there have been no areas of the student experience that students, on average, feel have worsened over the past two years.
When comparing university groups on their performance in different aspects of the student experience, Russell Group and 1994 Group institutions do consistently well across the domains of teaching and learning (for example, quality of staff and course), social life (such as community atmosphere) and facilities. As a group, Million+ institutions perform below average, but the University of Central Lancashire’s score is above average and those of the University of Sunderland and of Leeds Metropolitan University have improved substantially over the past year. The GuildHE group’s strength is in the teaching and learning area, while the forte for University Alliance members appears to lie in the facilities of its member institutions.
There were also significant differences in results according to the type of degree. Physical science students reported the most positive student experience. Other subject areas where students’ experience was above average included languages, history and philosophy in the humanities, and medicine, dentistry and biological sciences. Subject areas with experience ratings that fell significantly below average included subjects allied to medicine, veterinary science, agriculture and related subjects, architecture, building and planning, business and administrative studies, mass communications and documentation, creative arts and design, and education.
“Of course, these differences could be due to a number of factors, including not only the nature and performance of the subject area itself, but also the institutions and the types of students attracted to these subjects in the first place,” says Eleanor Simmons, associate director of OpinionPanel, the market research company that conducted the survey.
But one university seems to have the edge when it comes to an excellent all-round experience. Top of the poll - for the fifth year in a row - is Loughborough University, which excelled in respect of its sports facilities, extracurricular activities, campus environment, facilities, social life, students’ union and library.
The universities in the top 10 remain unchanged from last year, despite some jostling for position. In second place is the University of Sheffield. Undergraduates voted its students’ union number one in the country, and Sheffield also achieved top marks for its library and social life. The University of East Anglia comes in third place, closely followed by the University of Cambridge.
Ask most sixth-formers what matters most to them when choosing a university and, unsurprisingly, a good course and excellent teaching feature heavily.
The universities of Oxford and Cambridge both score highly in these areas, coming number one in the category “high-quality staff/lectures”. Oxford is also voted the best for good personal relationships with teaching staff.
However, sixth-formers told THE that non-academic factors played a key part in their decision-making too.
“I didn’t want to be a student in London - I wanted to go to the more ‘campusy’ unis,” says Tabatha Bergin, a student at Saffron Walden County High School. “It is an amazing city and I want to live there after I’ve graduated but I want to go to uni in a student city. London is expensive and you wouldn’t be able to afford any of the things you’d want to do.”
Meanwhile, knowing that her degree will not be an easy ride, would-be medic Fiona Hartley wants to study in a university where she will be able to let off steam when she is not slogging away at her books. Although the number one priority for the student at Pershore High School is to study in a city with a major hospital, she also wants good extracurricular activities.
“It has to be a place I like living in because I’m going to be there for a long time - a place where I’ll meet lots of people and be able to do all the clubs I want to do.”
Dawkes says she crossed one London university off her shortlist because “I’m quite sporty and it didn’t seem to centre that much around sport”.
According to our survey, the universities offering the best social lives are Leeds, Loughborough and Sheffield, while the best extracurricular activities and societies can be found at Oxford, Loughborough, the University of Warwick, UEA, Cambridge, Durham University and Sheffield. The top sports facilities are at Loughborough.
Lizzi Routledge, another student at Saffron Walden County High School, plans to start a maths degree this September. One criterion she used in narrowing down where to study was whether it had a 24-hour library.
“I know it sounds weird,” she says. “The thing is that once I start to work, I get to a point where I want to keep going. I’m the kind of person who can work all through the night. I can’t work at home in my bedroom at all - there are far too many distractions. Being in the library gets you in the right mindset.”
Students taking part in our survey voted Oxford and Sheffield as having the best library facilities in the country.
But, although they may not top our poll, other universities have made significant improvements - most notably, the University of Sunderland.
Sunderland saw the biggest overall improvement. A jump of 22 places from 79th in 2009 to 57th in 2010 and an increased score led to it receiving the 2010 Times Higher Education Award for Most Improved Student Experience (see “most improved” table, below).
Ben Marks, managing director of OpinionPanel, says: “The opening of the university’s sports and recreation facility, CitySpace, in 2009, has clearly been highly regarded by students - the rating of sports facilities at Sunderland witnessed a huge increase between 2009 and 2010.
“Other areas of notable improvement were support and welfare, relationships with teaching staff, fair workload and convenient facilities.”
Julie Mennell, Sunderland’s deputy vice-chancellor (academic), says the university has undergone a £75 million campus development programme, with changes including a £7.5 million sciences complex, redevelopment of the Murray Library, and a refit of the Media Centre.
The university has also been making a concerted effort to give feedback to students on improvements made. “We have always listened to our students and acted upon their views and issues,” says Mennell. “What we’ve not always done is tell them about it.”
So Sunderland has introduced Student Voice, a programme that ensures the university “lets students know what we are doing”.
“The fact that we have shown our students that we act on their views has been important,” says Mennell.
The second most-improved university was the University of Chester, which moved from 67th position in 2009 to equal 43rd.
James Down, 22, who is in his third year of a psychology with criminology degree at Chester, says he has certainly noticed plenty of changes for the better.
“Up until last year, I’ll be honest, our main canteen was looking a bit poor. A lot of our fully catered and semi-catered students have to eat there, so the students raised it (as an issue). They’ve refurbished it this year and it is looking absolutely immense.”
Jenni Moss, a 25-year-old student studying for a BSc in human nutrition at Chester, paints a similar picture.
“This summer we’ve had a refit of the whole of the bottom of the library and an extension to include a massive quiet study area and also a 24-hour computer lab,” she says. “In the Kingsway campus they have new sports facilities, which are fab. Also, we’ve got a new Riverside campus for the nurses and teaching staff - a new building that’s been acquired this year and the library there is fantastic.”
Despite the current financial constraints on universities, a race among other institutions to make similar improvements in time for the first year of the new funding regime seems likely.
Craig Mahoney, chief executive of the Higher Education Academy, says: “Surveys like this, and the HEA’s postgraduate student surveys, help us to understand what students think about different aspects of their experience. This informs our work, and the work of everyone involved in improving student learning experiences. We welcome it.”
Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students, says THE’s Student Experience Survey allows students “a real voice to say what they think about their experiences and universities”.
It is a voice that is set to get louder.
“As tuition fees are once again tripled, students will increase the pressure on their universities to deliver a high standard of academic, social and environmental experience,” he warns.
The tale of the polls: How the survey was conducted
More than 13,000 full-time undergraduates took part in this year’s poll, an increase of 2,000 over last year’s survey.
As in previous years, the student experience was broken down into the 21 elements chosen by students themselves as key to a good university experience.
Participants were asked to rate how their university performed in each of the areas, using a seven-point scale.
To design the survey, OpinionPanel asked 1,000 students to describe - unprompted and in their own words - how their university contributed to a positive and negative student experience.
The results from this exercise were then coded to form the 21 attributes rated by students in the survey.
“Each university’s score has been indexed to give a percentage of the maximum attainable score, allowing for more intuitive comparisons between universities,” explains OpinionPanel’s associate director, Eleanor Simmons.
“Of course, there will be no statistical significance in the scores of similarly ranked universities. But the results are very stable year on year, and we believe are effective at highlighting where best practice occurs and where certain universities have room for improvement.”
All respondents were members of OpinionPanel’s Student Panel, a group of students recruited via the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.
A new cohort is recruited to the panel annually when Ucas sends out an email invitation. Those surveyed are in different years of their degree.
“This means there is very little systematic bias in the panel - almost the entire undergraduate student population has the opportunity to join. This massively reduces the likelihood of sampling error,” Simmons explains.
As in previous years, respondents were not told the purpose of the poll and were unable to complete the survey more than once.
OpinionPanel believes these factors mitigate against the possibility of respondents artificially inflating scores in order to improve the performance of their institution.
In addition, universities do not know which of their students belong to the Student Panel, or when invitations to take part in the survey are sent out.
“It is highly unlikely that institutions themselves could influence the results,” Simmons says.
While the 13,000 respondents form only a fraction of the UK full-time undergraduate population, Simmons says the sampling fraction is relatively high in comparison with a typical political opinion poll or large-scale government survey.
“More importantly, the overall sample size is large enough to generate only a small sampling error,” she explains.
Each attribute is assigned a weighting. The weightings were decided by examining the factors most closely correlated with good scores in the category “I would recommend my university to a friend”.
The weighting methodology was reviewed in 2008 to ensure its continued suitability, and the same weighting methodology has been used for the past two years.
Students’ views were gathered between September 2009 and July 2010.