The annual student academic experience survey shows that 35 per cent of English respondents believed that their university education had been “poor” or “very poor” value for money. Since the Higher Education Policy Institute and the Higher Education Academy began recording data this is the first time that the proportion of English students who think their degree was bad value for money has overtaken the proportion who thought it was good value.
These figures emphasise a sharp decline in satisfaction levels in comparison with the survey in 2012 in which more than half of students (52%) felt that they received “good” or “very good” value for money. Declining satisfaction has been a notable trend since the raising of the tuition fees to £9,000 in 2012, despite the government’s argument that the increase would enhance student experiences.
Based on the responses of 15,221 undergraduates, the majority of student concerns focused on poor feedback, the slow return of assignments, and low contact hours. The survey found that students had an average of 13 and a half contact hours per week, but that 29 per cent had 9 or even fewer. Nevertheless, the survey highlighted issues with students’ demands for more contract hours since the survey also showed that 4 in 10 students admitted that they did not attend all their contact hours. Absences were noted to be particularly common at Russell Group universities, largely because of online access to notes and the ability to watch lectures on software such as ‘lecture capture’.
In terms of feedback, a quarter of students said that it took up to four weeks to receive grades and comments – a return time that only 12 per cent found acceptable. Students were also critical of where the institutions spent their money, with nearly half of all respondents arguing that the universities should spend less on buildings and sport or social facilities as a way to save money. Moreover, three-quarters of the students polled felt they were not being given enough information about how their fees were being spent.
Interestingly, the survey found a discrepancy between Russell Group institutions, where around 40% indicated they received good value for money in comparison to post-92 universities, where only around 34% of students stated university was good value for money. Furthermore, the overall satisfaction levels were particularly low among students from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds. Ali Milani, the president of the students’ union at Brunel University, said that a lot of BME arts and humanities students felt that curricula were very Eurocentric and students would like to see greater diversity in their courses.
Furthermore, the survey concentrated on mental health among students, an issue that is increasingly articulated by universities. Alarmingly but unsurprisingly, students scored drastically lower on well-being measures compared with the national population. As Ali Milani explains, “The tripling of tuition fees did not just have an economic impact, it had a psychological and cultural impact on students. We should take very seriously how the marketisation of higher education and the hike in fees has had an impact on wellbeing.”
It comes as no surprise that the survey also accentuates an overwhelming student opposition to government plans in the recent Higher Education and Research Bill to allow universities to raise their tuition fees further.
For the majority of students, the ‘student experience’ of increased independence, making friends, and exploring new places is still unparalleled and invaluable. Even so, the government will need to respond sensitively and appropriately to recent surveys to prove their commitment to the concerns of the student body.
By Nina Harris