Putting students at the heart of universities
The upcoming transition of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) into the Office for Students represents a far-reaching step-change. From the 1st April, the emphasis will focus on students at the heart of all university operations – and institutions will have to demonstrate and evidence they’re listening.
The new Office for Students means student’s interests will be protected, above that of the institution they attend. For some in the sector, this is a welcome and necessary change but for others, creates concerns about whether universities appearing to struggle will be given sufficient support by the regulator. An appetite to offer alternative provision to students feeling let down by their current provider could become a self-perpetuating cycle of student recruitment decline.
Alongside this, the Office for Students will be using the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) to assess the quality of undergraduate teaching. Although it is voluntary for universities to participate, like all league tables it’s the taking part that counts. Those who choose to omit themselves risk increased scrutiny.
The framework is promoted as improving student choice, as it will both recognise and reward excellence in teaching, learning and outcomes such as relevant employment or further study and training.
It also has the potential to be cited as a justification for raising tuition fees by traditionally funded universities over the next few years.
Teaching excellence is an important factor in delivering a positive student experience – but not the only one. The Times Higher Education’s Student Experience Survey for example, measures teaching alongside metrics such as student accommodation, facilities, wellbeing and social life. Such reviews and ‘recommend to a friend’ commoditises the student experience. Could Trip Advisor be rolled out to include universities?
University leaders need to wholeheartedly adopt a similar approach when creating a student-focused strategy. The universities that practically adapt to student’s needs and aspirations, rather than relying on the philosophy of doing so, will have a greater chance of convincing students of their success.
Simple but effective measures such as facilitating online learning are typically a popular option with students, as it gives them more control and flexibility around how they learn.
As the student experience becomes even more crucial – universities need to make sure they have a senior management team in place that can deliver.
In response, I’ve seen a growing number of universities develop roles such as PVC Student Experience, and Director of Student Opportunity which are specifically dedicated to improving student’s time at university.
The creation of such positions is a strong commitment from universities that they’re listening – and responding – to student’s needs. However, filling these positions with the right professionals will be vital if long-lasting changes are to be made.