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The student experience 2019: There is no such thing as an average student

This year’s Student Academic Experience Survey had no major surprises and effectively cemented in place the issues that the previous surveys had raised. Yet it is a highly valuable survey and provokes much debate yet again. It provides a vital bench mark for gauging improvements in time and it must continue. Its launch was in a rarefied atmosphere that seemed somewhat detached from the stark realities to be seen outside. The byword for the day was ‘uncertainty’ and this is piling up fast. There is no room for complacency in a society that is slowly degrading in the face of mounting inequalities.

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) are to be congratulated for organising a thought provoking annual conference yesterday for Higher Education professionals. It took place in the grand surroundings of the National Gallery in London that provided a symbolic backdrop to the cultural depth possessed by the UK. The organisation was excellent with political input from the Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Chris Skidmore, the Office for Students, Vice Chancellors and others providing valuable insight into the current mind set. But overshadowing most discussion was the apparent stasis within government, uncertain promises from the recent Augar report and inevitable Brexit fallout to come. Despite this, there was a determination to at least try to put a positive side forward.

Positive spin and alternative headlines.

It is easy to detect a positive spin on most announcements from government on anything to do with Higher Education. There is a reluctance to show any sign of negativity that might tarnish the UK brand that is seen as world leading. In this sprit, HEPI leads with the headline Second consecutive year of students reporting better value for money in releasing its Student Academic Experience Survey 2019 with Advance HE. This is indeed a trend that looks real. Forty one percent of students reported ‘good’ or ‘very good’ value from their course and this is significantly higher than the 38% seen last year. However, at 29% it could have been equally valid to headline that 'Nearly 30% of students see university as poor value for money'. Although the numbers have improved just outside the margin of error cited with 95% confidence, the problem is persisting nevertheless. This is not the time for complacency or seeking comfort in headlines. There is clearly a massive amount to be done yet.

The media in general zoomed in on new questions this year about mental health concerns. The BBC led with a general statement headline that observed ‘Students want parents to be told in mental health crisis’ . However, the reality of the data was that only 15% of students confirmed this. A majority of 66% only agreed under unspecified “extreme circumstances” whilst 18% said ‘no’. I would tend to interpret extreme as something that might involve hospitalisation. That most students seek to acquire a considerable degree of freedom from parental influence comes as no surprise to anyone experienced in teaching them.

Ominous signs.

More worryingly for the UK and its ‘international brand’ was the observation that international students are not wholly impressed. Only 37% of non-EU students confirm that they are getting good value for money. The headline could easily be 'Over 60% of international students say they are not getting good value for money'. Although the number surveyed was only 574 students, this low perception, that persists year on year since 2012, must surely be a major source of concern.

Margaret Hodge MP sought to ground everyone in the political reality of the situation. Her statement that “universities had been protected from austerity” was not a surprise, but then again not very welcome either. In the context of the Augar report, and recommendations regarding cuts in fees, it sent out a stark message.

Chris Skidmore, with considerable responsibility for HE, spoke frankly about the uncertainly of government in stressing that he may not be a minister “within eight weeks”. His personal view was that “we need to see a top-up” and insisted that there would not be a pro-STEM approach. This perhaps reflected the background of the audience in front of him. He emphasised that there was “no scope for differential funding” of degrees. In response to a probing question regarding a likely impact upon support for STEM subjects, his answer surely sets off alarm bells. His solution to the larger funding gap that STEM provision would see was to ask “how to bring in private investment in STEM”. This fluttered across the room of delegates, that were mostly non scientists, with little reaction. Having worked with industrial partners on environmental science projects for many years, I can confirm that independence and academic freedom must be protected at all costs and not become a slave to funding sources in order to survive (see the STEM dilemma explored further in TEFS 11th June 2019 ‘Augar Under the Microscope: STEMing the Tide’).

Nicola Dandridge, the CEO of the Office for Students (OfS) stressed that their work was only just beginning. But she did not come across as very confident in setting out the task of the OfS as a market regulator and resorted to reading out a 'shopping list' of things to be done. It added little to what we as OfS watchers already knew. Universities were noted as ‘providers’ throughout and this was bound to grate a little in the minds of people that are proud of their universities as long standing institutions of learning. In contrast, Ian Koxvoid of PwC used the term ‘institution’ throughout his comparison to the frightening economic realities of other sectors when he used the term ‘customer’ once in jest.

Omissions and some disappointments.

HEPI take pole position in presenting the survey report as it is released. This is in collaboration with Advance HE, and their considerable input, that is fully acknowledged. However, little was said about the pivotal role of the organisation ‘Youthsight’ in conducing the panel interviews. This was in providing the data ‘heavy lifting’ needed to construct the picture in the report. Although the founder and CEO of Youthsight, Ben Marks was present, he looked on from the side-line. Youthsight has a panel of over 150,000 16 to 30 year olds that can be used to survey attitudes and trends. There were a total of 14,072 students surveyed from across the UK in the current Student Experience Survey. This is a significant number from the estimated total of 1,776,540 that provides a fairly narrow margin of error and a good insight into students and their views. 

Unfortunately there was no representation on the panel of VCs from the Russell group. This was the same in 2018. I am sure HEPI tried to get one in to field some more probing questions. It would be even more illuminating to hear directly from a Russell Group university VC about how they are coping.

Student employment patterns glossed over.

Last year the Student Academic Experience Survey 2018 looked in more detail at the number of hours students spent in paid employment. They arbitrarily categorised them into those with no employment, those with up to 9 hours employment and those with more than 10 hours per week. This time the report merely noted that the average number of hours in paid employment had risen slightly from 4.7 hours to 4.8 hours per week. But this included all 14,072 students in the survey, many of whom have no paid employment commitments. The analysis then falls well short of being informative. The data released last year showed that, in the previous five years since 2012, 16% reported that they were working up to 9 hours per week and 20% over 10 hours per week.

This was a substantial number of students diverting their time from their studies. However, 64% reported that they had no paid employment. This broadly aligns with the ONS quarterly employment data (see more in depth from TEFS 27th July 2018 ‘The vast majority - one million - of students have no employment when in full-time studies’). If this is taken into account, then it appears that the average number of hours worked by the remaining 36% of students in paid employment has risen from around 12 hours per week in 2017 to over 13 hours per week in 2019. The width of the distribution is likely to put many students well over 20 hours per week and this has  been my experience when teaching and advising students coping with this. The hope is that improved maintenance loans in England, and the prospect of grants recommended by Augar, will improve this inequality of opportunity,

There is no such thing as an average student.

The quote of the conference was hard to decide upon but must go to Tim Blackman, the VC of Middlesex University and soon to lead the Open University. Referring to the student survey he noted that it was “Full of averages. There no such thing as an average student”. He went onto complain that the Student Survey had omitted to present any multivariate analysis of the considerable data set that they had at their disposal. This could provide insight into the likely links between various dependent variables in the data gathered and how they might be related. He illustrated this by presenting analysis he had conducted on the survey data from 2017. In relation to the survey outcome “I learned a lot”, he showed that there was a high statistical significance in relation to low and high numbers of hours in paid employment.

Becoming detached from reality.

The meeting took place not very far from the harsh reality of life outside and just a few hundred yards from Charing Cross station. When travelling in early, it was sad to see so many homeless still asleep or waking up inside the station tunnels. One I spoke with was in some considerable distress and needed help. The remains of his and other people’s belongings were still  scattered in the same place upon returning later in the day. It was therefore very hard to become detached later in the morning from the reality outside and consider those more fortunate at the other very far end of society. The student survey report was released online at midnight just as the Charing Cross inhabitants must have been struggling to find shelter and then again the following night.

In a further coincidence, the survey report was also released just two hours after the airing of the first episode of the ‘Student Sex Workers’ documentary on Chanel 5. It is still available on My5 and delegates might be advised to take in the stark reality it portrays. The programme makers referred throughout to 1 in 20 students working in the sex industry, in one form or another, to make ends meet. This was backed up by reports from last year such as in the Independent on 27th December 2018 with ‘Students are turning to sex work for extra money but experts warn universities are ignoring the issue’ and one from July 2018 ‘More than 10% of students 'use their bodies' to pay for university fees when facing emergency costs, study claims’. The latter reported a survey of 3,167 students in the UK in, ‘Save the Student: Student Money Survey 2018 – Results’. Many students have to work part-time and for some this seems to be an easy way out of poverty for those able to. But the personal cost is immense (see also TEFS 28th December 2018 ‘Mind the Gap: University students under increasing financial pressure’).

The documentary is in two episodes and they are a major assault on the safer presumptions that prevail in the middle class environment that the HEPI conference seemed to be living in. They show an unequal  society degrading almost to the desperate level that might be expected in the aftermath of a disaster or in a post-war zone, where those with means exploit those without who are trying to survive. The example set by some Oxfam aid workers in the last year seems not so far away in a world that is certainly not average.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years  teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


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