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Data-led policy: What should the 2015 HEPI / HEA Academic Experience Survey mean for policy?

  • 4 June 2015

This blog entry is the remarks made by, Nick Hillman, the Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute at the press briefing on the results of the 2015 HEPI / HEA Academic Experience Survey of 15,000 full-time undergraduates (Full report and Summary report)

Good morning. Thank you for coming to this press briefing for the 2015 HEPI / HEA Academic Experience Survey.

The survey is in its tenth year, as it was first launched by HEPI in 2006, just before tuition fees were tripled for the first time. The idea was to allow a before-and-after comparison of the student experience. That continues to be one of its main motivations and this year’s survey is the first one in which 1st year, 2nd year and 3rd year students in England are all on £9,000 fees. That makes it more useful than the official National Student Survey which, incredibly, has yet to publish data on a single student on the fees regime that was implemented in 2012.

The survey also delves more deeply than the National Student Survey. It includes questions on class size, attendance, the qualifications of lecturers, contact hours and total workload, written assignments and student wellbeing. I think of it as a helicopter with a telephoto lens hovering over institutions to find out what students are really up to.

The strength of our survey comes not only from its comprehensive nature; it also comes from the fact that some staple questions are repeated year-on-year and others are tweaked or replaced in the light of events. This year, for example, we have asked students where they think universities could cut with the least pain.

It is not only the design of the survey that reflects continuity and change: it is also the data itself. Some of the data on workload has been remarkably consistent over the years, which provides a useful test of the quality of the survey – even if it is sometimes surprising how little has changed since fees were tripled and then tripled again. Other data, for example on value-for-money, have changed significantly.

The research is undertaken by YouthSight, which collected and collated the data for us. For those of you who do not know who they are, they specialise in students and are the engine behind the annual Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey. They also undertook our recent study on views towards international students, which Jo Johnson spoke of earlier this week in his first speech as Universities Minister.

HEPI is, above all, a policy body that attempts to stimulate a healthy higher education debate and to propose solutions to problems suggested by the evidence and data. This survey, in particular, has never been just a cold dataset. So, as usual, we are making a few policy recommendations – in fact, six – on the back of the results.

Students spend more time studying independently than in the classroom. Yet many students feel they do not put enough effort in themselves. One response to that finding would be to instruct students to work harder. But the transition from school-based learning to the independent study that characterises higher education is a big one and it can seem like a chasm to some – particularly perhaps for some first-in-family students. These days, higher education is a mass rather than an elite system and we should recognise that average and less-prepared students don’t necessarily learn in the same ways as the brightest and most prepared. So one of our policy recommendations is that more attention needs to be paid by higher education institutions to supporting self-directed work. This is especially important if universities choose to expand in response to the removal of student number controls this autumn – as Paul Wellings said in last year’s HEPI Annual Lecture, when that policy was rolled out in Australia it led, for example, to more specialist first-year teaching staff.

The survey also shows strong demand from students for academics who are trained in how to teach. This data is now collected by the Higher Education Statistics Authority and its inclusion in the Key Information Set for people applying to university is long overdue. The Key Information Set was designed from the ground up to include information students themselves say is important, and it is clear that they regard whether or not their lecturers are trained to teach as critically important. To be clear: we are not recommending that teacher training should be compulsory, as some of the main political parties recommended at the recent general election for schools, but we do think this information should be prominent. (Notably, the University of Huddersfield claimed a couple of years ago to be the first UK university to have all its teaching staff become HEA Fellows.)

The lower importance that students place on whether their teachers are research active does not mean research is unimportant. After all, it is the world-class research undertaken in British universities which ensures they come top – or rather second to the US – in all the major global league tables. But it is clear from today’s data that students are not always certain of the benefits of research-informed or research-led teaching. Where they exist, they need to be more clearly communicated to students. Moreover, research-led teaching should be more than  using one’s own publications to teach from. At its best, it can mean having enhancing the student experience by having undergraduates participate meaningfully in research themselves, as happens at many US universities.

Last year, we lifted the Office for National Statistics’s four questions on wellbeing, which ask people how satisfied they are, how worthwhile they regard their lives, whether they are happy and how anxious they feel. Personally, I was surprised when our results showed that students score less well on every one of these measures than the population as a whole, including other young people – a finding repeated this year. I had previously bought the caricature of full-time student life as a relatively carefree period, but I was wrong. This is not completely counter-intuitive as students are facing uncertain futures with large amounts of debt and are often living away from home for the first time in an alien environment. The removal of student number controls could mean more people entering higher education with atypical backgrounds and, despite the likelihood of cuts, there is a clear need to maintain, protect and improve student support services, such as counselling. After all, tuition fees are not for tuition alone.

We probed students’ views on funding more deeply this year too. We used to have a question that asked students what their priorities were for institutional expenditure. This year, we have reversed it, so that we ask where they think cuts can be applied with the least pain. The results show that students want positive teaching and learning environments: they are more accepting of cuts to new building projects and on sports and social facilities than they are on reducing spending on learning facilities, lowering the number of contact hours or cutting spending on staff training. So any cuts to come in the budget or spending review must recognise that students want positive teaching and learning environments above all.

We also asked students some questions on fees. We asked them who should pay for the costs of tuition. In every part of the UK, a majority of students accept that students should contribute to the cost. But you can read this chart in another way too: in every part of the UK, a majority of students also think the Government should pay all or more than half of the costs. Scotland is an outlier, with a higher proportion of students (37%) thinking the Government should pay all of the costs. Given the absence of tuition fees for local and EU students in Scotland, this is unsurprising. Indeed, one might have expected the figure to be even more out of kilter with the other three parts of the UK.

Finally, one of our new questions this year asks undergraduates whether they feel they get enough information about how their universities spend their fees. A whopping 75% of students say they want more information than they currently get on this and only 18% are content. Providing better information on how tuition fees are spent by institutions is coming to seem like an inevitable consequence of the decision to adopt a system of funding that relies so heavily on student loans. Without rapid sector-led progress, perhaps using the vehicle of the information chapter in the QAA Quality Code, it may be forced on institutions by policymakers. Better information on how fees are spent is clearly in the interests of students but it is also in the interests of institutions, as it will give policymakers a much better understanding of the true cost base of running a world-class higher education sector. It would be a fitting response to these results.

All our data are freely available in Excel and SPSS. You are free to inspect the figures, play around with them and produce your own results. Indeed, we encourage you to do so.


  1. William Annandale says:

    I’ve not read this interesting report in detail as yet but, given the comment about the student’s transition from ‘school-based learning to the independent study’, was there a difference in responses between first and subsequent year students regarding contact hours and the desire for more support in self-directed work?

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