Universities are poor value for money – Student survey

Only 37% of United Kingdom full-time undergraduates think they get value for money at university and the overwhelming majority (86%) are opposed to the government’s plan to let universities raise their fees where they can demonstrate excellent teaching under the planned Teaching Excellence Framework.

This is despite 85% being satisfied with their course.

The 2016 Student Academic Experience Survey of more than 15,000 full-time undergraduates, published by the Higher Education Academy, or HEA, and the Higher Education Policy Institute, or HEPI, claims to have had a big impact on policy in previous years.

Nick Hillman, director of HEPI, said: “The survey reveals some crucial findings for policy-makers as they implement the biggest higher education reforms for a generation.

“Universities and the government both want to see tuition fees increase, but students are strongly opposed to this.

“So, if the politicians are to deliver the extra cash universities say is necessary for delivering a top-notch student experience, they need more covering fire from the higher education sector itself. Specifically, universities must show how any extra fee income will directly benefit their students."

Maddalaine Ansell, chief executive of University Alliance, whose universities educate one in four students in the UK, said: "As the implementation of the government's white paper proceeds, these findings will help inform and shape the Teaching Excellence Framework, which must reflect teaching and learning in a clear, transparent and meaningful way."

Value questioned

This year, the main findings include that the vast majority of students are satisfied with their course (85%).

For the first time, the survey correlates students’ satisfaction levels with other features of the student experience. The strongest correlation is with prior expectations being met, followed by having teaching staff who are helpful and supportive.

Students who live in university accommodation and first-year students show higher levels of satisfaction.

Students from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds show lower levels of satisfaction, which may be explained partly by their higher propensity to live at home while studying.

Hillman said: “If we are to raise the academic performance of groups at risk of falling behind, then we need a new focus on students who live at home and those from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds in particular."

Perceptions of ‘good value for money’ are falling in all four parts of the UK from 53% in 2012 to 37% today, but are lowest in England. There is strong evidence that students equate contact hours with good value: 58% of students taking medicine or dentistry think they are getting good value for money compared to only 30% of students taking technology, social sciences, mass communications and documentation or European languages.

The overwhelming majority of students (75%) want more information about how their tuition fees are spent, which may be one way of improving perceptions of value for money.

Workload variations

The survey reveals significant differences in workload between disciplines. Students taking subjects allied to medicine (such as nursing) work for 47 hours a week compared to 25 hours a week for students of mass communications and documentation.

On average, full-time undergraduate students work for 33 hours a week, split between 12 contact hours, 15 hours of independent study and 6 hours undertaking off-campus course-related work, such as a placement.

New additions to the survey for 2016 reveal gaps in the characteristics students expect their lecturers to display and their actual characteristics.

For example, 57% of students say it is ‘very important’ for staff to have received training in how to teach but only 21% think their lecturers demonstrate this ‘a lot’. Conversely, while 26% of students think it is ‘very important’ for those who teach them to be active researchers, 38% think this is demonstrated ‘a lot’.

A new question for 2016 reveals a substantial gap between students’ expectations of the time taken to mark their work and the time it actually takes. A majority of students (54%) think their work should be returned in two weeks or less, but under one-third of students (31%) receive their work back this quickly.

Students have lower levels of well-being than others and are much more anxious. For example, 21% of students have the lowest anxiety levels compared to 41% of the population as a whole and 43% of all younger people. A new question added to the survey for 2016 reveals that over two-thirds (68%) of students know how to access their institution’s counselling services.

Hillman said: “Higher education institutions could also do more to shape and meet the expectations of undergraduates on areas such as contact hours, the qualifications of lecturers and feedback on written work.

“The high levels of anxiety among students show that having to stand on your own two feet as an independent learner – combined with financial, workload and future career worries – is a combustible mix."