The 2017 Student Academic Experience Survey, published today by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and the Higher Education Academy (HEA) reveals:

  • how hard students are working;
  • how satisfied they are with their lives; and
  • what they think of recent government policies.

Over 14,000 full-time undergraduates took part in the survey this year.

Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI and co-author of the report, said:

‘This is the biggest sector-wide survey on what students think throughout their time in higher education. It needs to be taken seriously by universities and whoever is in Government after the election. Much of the story is positive, but students are less happy and more anxious than non-students.

‘The survey proves beyond all doubt that the student experience differs depending on ethnicity, the type of accommodation and sexual orientation. Such factors have a direct impact on how engaged students are with their studies as well as on their overall quality of life. For a truly great academic experience, we need to think ever more deeply about how to respond to the individual characteristics of each student.

‘The election has seen a lively battle for student votes. The Survey shows students want universities to provide information on where fees go, taxpayers to cover more of the costs and policymakers to provide stronger arguments for future fee rises. Above all, the Survey confirms higher education transforms lives but also that it does not currently help all students equally.’

Principal author Jonathan Neves, HEA Head of Surveys, said:

‘The positive responses to our new questions about learning gain and on teaching quality are encouraging. But the feedback also shows that there is important work required to address the less positive academic experience of minority groups, and to realise the potential benefits from studying alongside non-UK students.

‘The decline in perception of value is of concern, and highlights how complex this issue is. It’s revealing that only 19% of students believe they receive enough information on how their fees are spent. And this suggests that institutions need deeper engagement and personalisation of approach with students at every stage of their higher education experience to meet their expectations better.’

Learning gain

In response to a new question on how much students are learning, two-thirds (65%) of students in UK higher education say they have learnt ‘a lot’. Evidence that perceptions of teaching quality are rising includes year-on-year increases in students’ perceptions of  teaching staff characteristics. Compared to 2016, a higher proportion of students think:

  • course goals are explained clearly (up from 63% to 65%);
  • teaching staff motivate students to do their best work (from 51% to 54%); and
  • staff help students explore their own areas of interest (from 33% to 37%).

Value for money

But perceptions of value for money are falling. Across the UK, nearly as many students (34%) think they are receiving poor value as think they are receiving good value (35%). Declining perceptions of value are evident among students from England, Scotland and Northern Ireland but the biggest decline is in Scotland.

The Survey includes the most detailed and widely-used data on student wellbeing. It confirms student wellbeing is lower than for the rest of the population. Only one-in-five students (19%) report low anxiety, compared to twice as many (41%) people in the population as a whole. Students who say they have learnt ‘a lot’ have higher levels of wellbeing, indicating how more positive results could be achieved in future.

The Teaching Excellence Framework

Next week, the first Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) results are due to be published. In future, universities will only be able to raise their fees if they perform well in the TEF. The survey proves the vast majority of students (76%) are firmly opposed to TEF-linked fee rises.

Teaching staff

There is inconsistency between the attributes students want their staff to display and the attributes they do display. For example, almost all (94%) students want their staff to undertake continuous professional development in teaching but far fewer (57%) think this happens.

Experience by ethnic background

The Survey explains the relative underperformance of students from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds. For example, White students tend to feel more positive about teaching staff characteristics than students of other ethnicities, and Asian students are less likely to feel they are learning ‘a lot’ than White students (59% versus 66%).

This may be partly explained by accommodation choice: 60% of Asian respondents live at home while studying, compared to just 24% of all respondents. The authors call for higher education institutions to explore the “sticky campus” concept to ensure all students are fully integrated.

Sexual orientation

The Survey additionally paints a more detailed picture of the experiences of students of different sexual orientations than ever before. Students who identify as straight do better on each of the four wellbeing measures than other students. This suggests higher education institutions have further to go in providing a fully supportive environment for people of all sexual orientations.

Alternative providers

The Survey also includes detailed information about the experience of students at alternative providers for the first time. Only a small proportion of respondents are at alternative providers and they are generally in the bigger, better-known alternative providers which are atypical. However, it is still notable that those alternative providers’ students who are covered by the Survey provide more positive responses in many areas than respondents as a whole.

For example, they are:

  • more likely to believe they have enough information on where their fees go (35% versus 20% for all respondents);
  • more likely to be having an experience that is exceeding their original expectations (35% versus 25%); and
  • more likely to think they are getting good value (54% versus 35%).

Learning alongside people from other countries

In response to a new question asking UK-domiciled students about studying alongside students from outside the UK, 36% responded positively, 32% were unaware of any benefits and the remainder were neutral. More needs to be done to explain the benefits of learning within a diverse environment to students.

Notes to editors:

The HEPI-HEA Student Academic Experience Survey has been running since 2006 and shows how full-time undergraduates rate their time in higher education and their attitudes towards policy issues that impact upon them.  The Survey has been designed and developed in partnership between HEPI and the HEA and the fieldwork is undertaken independently by YouthSight.

The data tables for this year and earlier years are freely available.

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