The Big Questions Facing UK Universities in 2019-20

Written by John Atherton.

As we embark on a new academic year, UK universities are faced with some pressing questions to which urgent answers are needed: from the Augar review (will headline plans to cut tuition fees to £7,500 be implemented?) and Brexit (how will the UK be involved in the EU’s research and student mobility programmes?), to the Teaching Excellence Framework (what does the independent review being undertaken mean for subject-level TEF?) and international students (will post-study work visas be reintroduced?).

Some major headaches, of that there is no doubt. Another challenge for UK universities that is generating more and more mainstream attention is capturing the student voice. A senior academic from Swansea University reflected on her institution’s own approach, which “helped with our results in the 2018 National Student Survey, with one college in particular seeing a big improvement in the number of students who believe that ‘staff value students’”. The article also opened up the discussion on ‘students as partners’, a theme which came through in our own insight report, The Student Voice: How can UK universities ensure that module evaluation feedback leads to continuous improvement across their institution?

And only last month Kingston University’s Head of Academic Systems & Evaluation, Dr Tim Linsey, blogged for University Business magazine on how institutions should capture and share module feedback in real-time. Drawing on the University’s experience working with Explorance for over three years, Dr Linsey explained how the institution is collecting and disseminating more student feedback from underrepresented groups, and how this is “effectively embedded in our quality assurance and enhancement processes”. He also spoke at the Universities UK conference on Improving Student Retention on this very issue, back in June.

Of course, universities have been capturing student feedback for years, so why now is this receiving more prominence in the media and beyond? Well, the NSS poses ‘student voice’ questions which ask students if they have the opportunity to give feedback and how their feedback is acted on; and TEF, which provides a resource for students to judge teaching quality in universities, draws on data from the NSS. Student satisfaction, informed and supported by an engaged student population, is fundamental to the future of universities and the strategic goals of Vice-Chancellors and Deputy or Pro Vice-Chancellors directly responsible for this agenda.

More and more UK universities are making the ‘student voice’ a priority and we are now working with Birkbeck, Durham, Glasgow Caledonian, Kingston, Liverpool John Moores, Loughborough and Strathclyde in the UK, to name a few. Whilst the ‘big’ sector questions may not be answered any time soon, it is clear that many institutions are pressing ahead with development of new module evaluation systems, which enable students to be involved in evaluating and shaping their teaching and learning experience, and we would expect more to follow. This will give university leaders the ability to identity good practice and support continuous institutional improvement.


John Atherton is Higher Education Director (UK & Ireland) at Explorance


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