SATISFACTORY, OR ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT?

The HEPI university student experience survey 2015 can be found here .

So, HEPI has published its annual summer treat, the Student Satisfaction Survey (in collaboration with the Higher Education Academy). HMC Heads will have been more-than-usually interested, since work with universities on improving transition has been a big priority for us this year – hence the conference in April which some will remember.

So what does this year’s horizon scan reveal? Well a minor irritation is that they have used once again the odd YouthSight Student Panel, which you get to be part of by ticking a box on your UCAS form, a box whose purpose I have yet to find an eighteen year old who understands. Why not work in partnership with UCAS, for heavens’ sakes, who can contact every student in the UK?

That aside, much has stubbornly refused to shift since last year. In 2014, 86% of students pronounced themselves very or fairly satisfied with their courses (only 29% were ‘very’, mind you); in 2015 this has edged to 88%, but the ‘very’ camp has shrunk slightly to 28%. Over one in ten is still unhappy. With money very much on the student mind, it’s interesting to note that ‘value for money’ stats are still roughly the same: in 2014 26% of students said they were getting poor or very poor value for money, and this year the figure is 29%, with the ‘very poor’ moving from 8% to 9%. Personal wellbeing was a new area for last year’s survey, and here too there is much the same news: last year’s survey showed 76% of males and 73% of females reporting high levels of overall satisfaction with life, this year’s 76% and 72%.

Contact hours has always been an issue, and here the news is cautiously optimistic (if you are a fan of contact hours, that is). Timetabled sessions have gone up on average from 12.5 hours per week to 12.8 this year. Mind you, they averaged 13.4 four years ago, and the rise in these taught sessions has been mitigated by a fall in independent study (down from 15.3 hours per week on average to 13.9).

This year, though, HEPI tackles teaching head-on. So, we find that students feel academics are generally good at encouraging students to take responsibility for learning (32% said all staff do this and another 45% said most do), less good at helping students to do so (only 8% saying all staff do this rather trickier job, with another 25% only saying most do). As the report goes on to say too, ‘there are notable differences in perceptions between genders, with female students generally more positive than male students about teaching quality. In some disciplines (such as Education) male students were three times as likely as female students to feel teaching was disorganised and unstructured (16% versus 5%). This is a significant finding if the gender balance on Education courses is thought to be of concern.’

Then come some shockers. On teaching, only 20% of staff, according to these students, are always making it clear what is expected by way of work. This surely links with work HMC has been trying to do with HE, helping us all clarify what students expect, and what we expect of them, in those crucial 18-20 years.

Worst of all, though, we see that when asked whether, if they had known what they know now, students would have chosen the same course at the same place, only 33% say a definite yes. OK, another 30% say ‘probably yes’, but a whacking 10% say they definitely would not have chosen what they did, with a further 24% saying they probably wouldn’t have. One in three, in short, regrets being where they are.

Now, in most independent schools, we reckon that most of our students get into good universities and do well. Certainly, surveys conducted by Oxford Economics, by HEFCE and by others, tell us our students do proportionally better at getting good jobs and good degrees. Is that luck? Did we advise them well, or are they well trained at independent work?

All of these are great questions, and continue to preoccupy us ... and by the way, we need to do our own survey of ex-independent school students to see how happy ours are. But my central emotion today, as I look at the ghastly pie-chart on page 15 of the HEPI 2015 survey, is sadness. Sadness that one in three of these students, whoever they are, would not have chosen to do what they are doing if they had known what they know now.

Have they been poorly advised, in which case let’s work on that (and HMC want to and do help other schools in this, but let’s do more)? Have universities not delivered what they promised, in which case they must do better? Have schools prepared students poorly, in which case more needs to be done there? Whatever the answer, this cannot continue, and universities and schools need to work on some answers, fast. Otherwise we – or rather our youngsters – are wasting time, effort and money, and HE is getting a bad name.

By Chris Ramsey, Co-Chair, GSA/HMC Universities Committee and Head Master, King’s School, Chester