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Initiative to improve the student experience goes global

Research universities from across the globe met from 8-10 October at the University of California, Berkeley, to discuss a first round of survey data on their students’ undergraduate experience. Institutions from Brazil, Britain, China, The Netherlands, Russia and South Africa have joined the new SERU International Consortium.

SERU, which stands for Student Experience in the Research University, is a survey tool designed to collect data on the academic and civic engagement of undergraduate students at research universities in the United States.

The survey has gone global and the Berkeley meeting was attended by members of the SERU International Consortium including the University of Campinas in São Paolo, Brazil; University of Cape Town, South Africa; University of Bristol, UK; Amsterdam University College in The Netherlands; National Research University – Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Russia; and China’s universities of Hunan, Nanjing and Xi'an JiaoTong.

Observers were also present from Oxford University, the universities of Rhodes, the Western Cape and Johannesburg in South Africa, the University of New South Wales in Australia and member institutions of the American Association of Universities.

The SERU survey

SERU provides information about how students of diverse backgrounds and with competing demands engage with their academic work, organise their time and respond to the curriculum, and make use of the resources and opportunities offered by the unique research university environment.

The SERU survey has been administered at campuses of the University of California since 2002 and later expanded to certain member universities of the American Association of Universities.

Dr John Aubrey Douglass of the Centre for Studies in Higher Education (CSHE) at Berkeley has been building the SERU International Consortium of research universities since 2010.

Working with CSHE staff, each SERU International Consortium member administers a customised, online census SERU survey to their undergraduate students. Consortium members collaborate in further developing survey topics and questions, and engaging in policy symposiums and collective research on challenges facing research universities.

Among the broad questions the survey investigates is whether the opportunity of studying at a research university actually has a unique and beneficial impact on the undergraduate student experience.

Since the SERU survey consists of a flexible number of shared modules of questions as well as customised regional and institution-specific module options, and consortium members are at different stages of implementing the survey on their respective campuses, presentations at the conference covered a range of conceptual, empirical and methodological aspects.

Initial findings from the international consortium

The three Chinese consortium universities presented initial factor analyses of their first data set showing a high degree of construct validity of the SERU questionnaire even across the Pacific.

Moreover, as Dr Mei Zhao of Stanford University showed, benchmarking the survey findings from Nanjing, Hunan and Xi’an JiaoTong universities against UC Berkeley data provides comparative insights into the Chinese student culture and highlights opportunities for improvement in faculty-student relations.

The presentation from the Centre for Higher Education Transformation in South Africa focused on a new optional module of questions on “student engagement with citizenship, diversity and social justice”, for which first data will be available in November 2012 from its pilot run at the University of Cape Town.

With funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, indigenised versions of the module are expected to be administered in several African flagship universities in 2013 to investigate the contribution of the undergraduate student experience to democratic leadership development in the African context.

Data presentations and discussions of their policy implications were also made by Professors Marijk van der Wende from Amsterdam University College (AUC) and Renato Hyuda de Luna Pedrosa of University of Campinas (UniCamp) illustrating their application of the first rounds of SERU data in institutional decision-making.

At UniCamp, the preliminary analysis of data from questions on student admission and programme choice dispelled the commonly held notion that most students were dissatisfied with the Brazilian practice that programme choices had to be finalised before admission to university.

At the AUC, which is a joint excellence institute of the University of Amsterdam and VU University Amsterdam, the results and analyses of two rounds of SERU survey data have come to be used in shaping the new college’s policy on admissions.

Use of SERU data in America

There is wide and established use of SERU data among American Association of Universities (AAU) consortium members.

Presentations by Dr Tongshan Chang of the University of California office of the president, and Dr Peter Radcliffe and Dr Tom Dohm of the University of Minnesota, all gave insight into their application of data and related data analysis tools.

Among AAU consortium members, SERU data is variously used in campus and departmental accreditation; and departmental and programme reviews; for assessing admissions processes and success; as an information source for student orientation; and to answer specific questions about the experiences of students as they arise.

The survey also yields additional demographic background information on the undergraduate student body that may otherwise not feature in institutional data sets.

The SERU International Consortium, like its AAU counterpart, operates as a peer group that reciprocally shares among its members best practices and data in keeping with agreed protocols.

To be able to benchmark with peer and aspirational research universities is among the major attractions for research universities to be invited to join the consortium.

* Dr Thierry Luescher-Mamashela is extraordinary senior lecturer in political studies at the University of the Western Cape and is currently coordinator of the higher education masters in Africa programme in the education faculty at that university. As senior researcher in the Centre for Higher Education Transformation, South Africa, he is responsible for the HERANA Student Development and Democracy project.
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