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We’ve been tracking students’ views for 15 years. But it has never been so important to listen to them as it is in 2021.

  • 24 June 2021
  • By Nick Hillman

The HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey is 15 years old this year. It began on the initiative of HEPI’s founder and now President, Bahram Bekhradnia, as a way of tracking changing perceptions at a time of rising fees.

Back in 2006, the year the project was born, fees were in the process of being tripled in England to £3,000. The first iteration of the Survey was conducted by HEPI and one of Advance HE’s predecessor bodies (the Higher Education Academy) in spring 2006, just before the higher fees came in.

Since then, we have been able to build up a robust picture of student life under different fees and funding regimes, across the UK and for both home and international students.

As I note in my Foreword to this year’s Survey, the project has really come into its own this year. When we published it last year, COVID-19 was already having an impact but the fieldwork had been partially conducted before it had been declared a ‘pandemic’. At the time, there was a general hope that the impact would be modest, rather than both huge and spread across different academic years.

So this year’s Survey by Jonathan Neves (Advance HE) and Rachel Hewitt (HEPI), with fieldwork by YouthSight, is the first one to reflect properly on student life while the whole world is in turmoil.

Collecting representative opinion poll data in this way is one recognised way of capturing the student voice. But alongside the many quantitative results on issues like value-for-money perceptions, we have made more use this year of the ‘free text’ comments that students provide through the Survey. These provide more colour and help enrich our understanding of exactly why so many students feel they have received poor value over the past year.

The Survey is widely read inside higher education institutions – and rightly so, given it reveals what institutions need to do to improve student life as well as shedding light on what they are perceived to be doing well. (Many like to pore over their own institutions’ data, which – with appropriate data protections in place – Advance HE and HEPI can make available.)

One particular finding that managers are likely to take note of this year is the huge desire among students to get back to ‘mostly’ face-to-face teaching.

It is a cliché to say that the future is blended but, like many clichés, it is probably true. Yet it would be easy to get the blended balance wrong, at least for the full-time undergraduates who make up our respondents, for example by providing too much online-only provision and insufficient face-to-face teaching.

We have written elsewhere about how learning is for many people a social endeavour and successful edtech tends to recognise that. Another finding institutions need to address is students’ concerns about feedback, which have never been universally positive but which have deteriorated further in some respects during the crisis.

Listening to students is vitally important, but so – of course – is listening to staff and responding to students often means putting more pressures on staff, which are already immense. This has been a regular theme in HEPI’s work in recent years. So another important lesson for institutions is to ensure they have sufficient staff, with the right skills, to respond to what students are telling us.

The Survey is also widely read within the corridors of power and perhaps the most striking finding of all this year is an apparent mismatch between students’ opinions and the wider political conversation. To take two examples:

  1. while the wider political debate tends to focus on tuition costs more than living costs, we see far more students care a lot about the latter; and
  2. while the wider political debate tends to focus on the proportion of graduates in ‘graduate-level jobs’, we find just half of students see this as their post-study goal, which is a useful reminder that people enrol in education for a wide range of valid reasons.

Above all, the value of the Survey comes from the mix of longitudinal data, which allows comparisons over time (including for years when the wider environment is changing fast) and the influx each year of brand new questions on particularly topical issues. That has never been truer than it is this year.

Topics on which we dive more deeply this year include racial inequality (pages 32 to 34), student representation (page 36) and living costs (pages 53 to 54). In the accompanying analysis, there is also more focus on students’ characteristics, with – for example – a brighter spotlight shone on trans students and privately-educated students.

Later this morning, thanks to sponsorship from Lloyds Bank and UPP, the HEPI Annual Conference will be taking place, and we expect it to be bigger and better than in the past after a year’s pandemic-related hiatus. As well as hearing from the two authors of the new Survey, we will hear from:

  • the Secretary of State for Education – the Rt Hon. Gavin Williamson;
  • the Chief Executive of the Office for Students – Nicola Dandridge;
  • a panel of sector leaders – Rama Thirunamachandran, Shirley Pearce, Bobby Duffy and Sunday Blake
  • an expert in crisis management – Donald Steel; and
  • a new Vice-Chancellor who has entered the sector after very senior roles in politics and the media – the Rt Hon. James Purnell.

No doubt they too will have lots to say on the findings.

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