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What do students deserve? Concerns mount over quality of expanding higher education

The recent University Alliance report on quality in higher education brings into sharp focus one of the major issues facing contemporary UK higher education: how we ensure that the sector maintains its…

We stumped up, now we get to stamp. Stamp via filmfoto/Shutterstock

The recent University Alliance report on quality in higher education brings into sharp focus one of the major issues facing contemporary UK higher education: how we ensure that the sector maintains its reputation for quality in a period of dramatic change.

The report rightly highlights the complexity of higher education today. Not only do universities compete against each other to recruit students but new “providers” offer alternative study routes. Programmes are now offered by further education colleges and by an increasing array of private businesses. The increasing number of technological options to study has made quality even more difficult to assure.

A recent investigation by The Guardian into private “cashpoint colleges” with largely empty classrooms has made this even starker, and triggered an investigation by the National Audit Office.

In a context where potentially unlimited numbers of students now expect to pay unprecedented sums in tuition fees, institutions see potential for making a lot of money. It seems unlikely that things will become simpler any time soon, so it is vital for the students to be able to guarantee the quality of the programmes that they follow.

The report is right to highlight the need for recognised definitions of quality in the sector, but we must be careful not to reinvent the wheel. Key definitions were identified over 20 years ago by Lee Harvey and Diana Green during their government-funded Quality in Higher Education project, definitions which have remained influential ever since.

Harvey and Green noted that quality can be excellence, what is up to standard, fitness for purpose and value for money. But they added a fifth definition which is particularly pertinent to an educational setting. Quality is about transformation: good quality assurance should be a learning process in which staff and students learn through dialogue how to do things better.

Take student feedback seriously

At the heart of the anxieties in the University Alliance report is the “student experience”, by which we normally mean “their experience of the programme of study”. Sometimes this also includes their wider experience of life at university. If students are paying such vast sums in tuition fees, it seems vital that they are able to make good choices.

This has been a concern of policy makers since the late 1990s: A committee led by Ron Cooke met in 2001 to identify the public information needs of higher education. At the core of this debate was the concern that potential students and their parents needed to be able to make informed choices about where to study, bearing in mind that they were now paying tuition fees of £1,000 a year.

Student experience is not all about grades. Nottingham Trent University, CC BY-NC-ND

One of the major achievements of the Cooke Committee was the recognition at the highest levels of institutions that students’ feedback had to be taken into account in the quality assurance process.

Cooke highlighted experience at several institutions where annual large scale student feedback surveys were used effectively. Students are major stakeholders in higher education and their collective voice should help inform change in the sector.

However, the main result of the Cooke Committee was the National Student Survey (NSS). One of the (many) criticisms of the NSS is that it is based on typical customer surveys in which students rate items rather than how they feel they have engaged with their programme.

Now a new Higher Education Policy Institute and the Higher Education Academy survey of student experience has shown that students are less satisfied with their time in higher education than previously thought – partly because they are not getting quite what they expect from their time in higher education.

Student arbiters of quality

The key issue here, then, is student engagement, a term that has become a bit of a cliché but important all the same. Engagement, like all buzzwords, is a vague term, but goes back to what is at the heart of UK higher education debates: how to engage and involve students in a way that is fulfilling for both them and the staff.

In practice, this means that engaged students are those who work in partnership with academic staff to address issues facing learning and teaching, and even in the most daring cases, to develop the curriculum. It is a conversation between student and learner.

In the increasing number of institutions that implement student partnership programmes, experience seems to be overwhelmingly positive. For example at Birmingham City University, where I teach, students are paid to engage in partnerships with staff on a range of projects, including developing teaching materials in the media school. For staff, student partners have enabled them to do things they had neither time nor resources to do before, even to see things from a different perspective.

The overall message of the University Alliance report is clear: there needs to be a greater standardisation of higher education quality assurance mechanisms across the burgeoning sector, overseen by the Quality Assurance Agency. But we still need to be clear that at the heart of quality assurance within higher education needs to be a focus on the transformation of all students, staff and institutions.