The primary driver for many of our discussions around Go Beyond and the new curriculum here at Swansea has been the changing needs and increasing pressures on students. Over the next eight days (four this week, and four next week) I am going to upload, in a series of blogs, a presentation I gave at the SALT Conference on 18th July, that asks how the needs and expectations of students are changing and what we should, perhaps, be doing in order to meet those needs.
We sometimes assume that the fundamental student experience has not changed that dramatically for the last ten, twenty, or even fifty years. Students may drink less today, they may be more motivated to work harder, they may spend more time on their mobiles during lectures, but fundamentally, being a student is much the same today as it was when we were students. Life is made up of lectures, seminars, labs, writing essays, completing exams and so on, with a healthy dose of social life, extra-curricular activities and, perhaps here in Swansea, the odd barbecue on the beach thrown in.
I want to suggest that, in very real ways, that is not the case, and that the pressures on students today, combined with some significant changes to the wider context, mean that the student experience in 2018 is very different from what it was in the late twentietentury, and, I would argue, very different from what it was ten, or even five, years ago.
Over the next four days I want to identify four changes in particular that have transformed the student experience in the last few years:
1. Fees, Commercialization and Marketization
We often hear colleagues within the university sector bemoaning the commercialization or marketization of higher education. Some set out to fight against it. Some deny it, insisting that the relationship we have with students is not that of customer, or even client, and providers. Few would want to welcome it. I am certainly not suggesting we should do that, but we should recognise the reality of the new environment.
However the fees are paid, and however much any single student actually ends up paying, there is a strong sense, among the student body, that they are paying for a service, and that they are entering into considerable debt in order to do so. Value for money is not simply a government slogan. Only a third of those students who completed the most recent HEA/HEPI survey felt that they were getting ‘value for money’. This year the survey also asked what it was that students meant by value for money. The results focused less on contact hours, as the government has assumed, and more on teaching quality and access to resources. The same was clear in a debate I organised among our own students. The science and engineering students could see where their money was being spent, on labs and equipment, but the arts students, while being very complimentary about the academic staff, could not identify the same kind of spend or resources (physical or digital) as in the STEM subjects.
An interesting extra element that has come out of this discussion at a national level is that students want to be challenged and feel short changed if less is expected of them. They want to be pushed and they want to see that they are gaining in knowledge and learning something that is new, relevant and of value to them in their future career.
There is, however, another side to commercialisation, and that is the way in which it makes the students feel. Many students talk of feeling diminished, unappreciated, ‘mere customers’ and not valued as individual learners. There has been a rapid growth across HE in recent years, not just in Swansea. Students are increasingly finding it difficult to adjust. They feel alienated from the institution, increasingly even from their own disciplinary home, and find few points of meaningful contact with staff (academic or professional services) or the institution.
We may think that the obvious solution to these problems is to stop growing, to focus more fully on the students that we do have. Unfortunately, this is not an option. Student fees in recent years have not been rising and the gap between inflationary rises in costs, including staff costs, against an essentially static income, has inevitably led to larger class sizes. We may think that we are uniquely placed in these terms, but that is far from the case, and there is growing dissatisfaction among the student body across the sector about the way that this impacts on student experience. A number of other universities are already extending the teaching day and developing other methods in order to address this problem. There are no simple solutions, but we do need to recognise the changes that have occurred and to reflect on what we need to do as an institution in order to address them.