“It’s Different For Everyone”: Understanding The Student Experience of Higher Education
Since 2005, all publicly funded Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in the United Kingdom (UK) have participated in the National Student Survey (NSS) which measures undergraduate students’ satisfaction with their course. This data, which enters the public domain, along with other evaluative information, is then used by HEIs to enhance their student experience (Kovacs et al., 2010). Despite this focus on the student experience it remains largely unconceptualised in the academic literature (Benckendorff et al., 2009) and this paper will begin to address this gap by drawing on data from university students in England.
While many academic writers contend that definition of the concept is problematic, arguing that the student body is so diverse it can only be thought of in terms of a multiplicity of experiences rather than one student experience (Ainley, 2008), any conceptualisation of the student experience tends to be in terms of a journey “from recruitment to learning, awards, destinations and on to alumnus status” (Middlehurst, 2011, p.35). Indeed, one of the first publications to refer to the student experience in the UK explored the student journey - getting in, being there and moving on (Haselgrove, 1994). It has also been understood to mean engagement in academic and non-academic areas of student life, helping to create a sense of belonging and integration through extra-curricular activities (Burdett and Crossman, 2010) or as a series of interactions between the student and the institution (Temple et al., 2014).
The student experience carries a “heavy burden of political thinking” (Ramsden and Callender, 2014, p.16) associated with the marketisation of Higher Education (HE) and the student as consumer (Cartney, 2013). Indeed, the first published UK reference to the student experience in 1992 exploring the experiences of the 'average' student in HE had a chapter on 'The Student as a Consumer' (Roberts and Higgins, 1992). Moreover, recent European research identified inequalities in the student experience amongst students in England, Italy and Sweden in relation to finance, housing, wellbeing and educational outcomes (Antonucci, 2016). The number of university students in the UK living at home is steadily rising and the traditional, residential experience of students immersing themselves in university life is not as dominant as it once was (Brennan et al., 2010). In England, for example, a greater percentage of students from low/intermediate educational backgrounds live with their parents compared to those from higher educational backgrounds (Antonucci, 2016). Conceptualisations of the student experience as a journey may no longer be relevant if, as Holdsworth observed: “Students’ experiences are also diverging and the concept of a normative ‘student’ experience, as stereotyped by popular portrayals of student life, is becoming less relevant, if it ever was” (2006, p.496).
While this literature usefully provides some conceptualisation of the student experience there is little empirical evidence from students themselves. This paper is intended to produce new thinking in this area drawing on research which aims to consider the development and understanding of the student experience in English HE over the last fifty years. It also considers the relationship between the student experience and university space. Thinking of campus space “as an ongoing developmental process that is understood, made and re-made by those engaged with it” (Lefever 2012, p.127) it explores the relationship between students’ understanding of their experience and how they perceive this relates to their day to day lives as students. While this paper draws on this study of students in English HE it claims a wider significance for students internationally who pay tuition fees (e.g. Australia, United States of America, Spain, France, Italy and the Netherlands).
A qualitative approach to the issue using grounded theory was drawn on for this research. Phase 1 included six exploratory focus groups at one post-1992 campus university in England. While all the nations of the UK participate in measuring student experience through the National Student Survey, England was selected as an initial case because of the existence of tuition fees whilst, for example, Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in Scotland do not charge students from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or European Union members. Participants were recruited via email and social media and the sessions included undergraduate, postgraduate taught and research students on different programmes including mature, part time, international students and students with caring responsibilities. The students were asked to talk about their typical day at university and to think about whereabouts they went, who with and what they did there. The questions were designed to examine how students used the campus and how this is related to their experience (Thomas, 2015). The second part of the focus groups explored the students’ understanding of the term the ‘student experience’ and they were asked if it was a term they recognised and what they understood it to mean in relation to their lives as students.
In Phase 2 of the project, three campus universities and four non-campus HEIs in England agreed to participate in further focus groups. The sessions with undergraduate students (a refinement made because of the differences in opinions and experience between undergraduate and postgraduate students which emerged in Phase 1) utilised a refined version of the format developed during Phase 1 with the addition of physical paper maps for students to consider during their descriptions of their experience. With the consent of participants, all the focus groups in Phase 2 were audio recorded and transcribed and the transcriptions uploaded to NVivo, a software package for qualitative data analysis, in the same way as the exploratory focus groups in Phase 1 where the transcripts were analysed and themes identiﬁed.
The paper will explore the results of both Phase 1 and Phase 2 focus groups. In Phase 1, the term ‘student experience’ was recognized by the undergraduate students who associated it with the National Student Survey and university rankings. They felt that the term was often used as a promotional tool and was virtually meaningless since it was employed so liberally. Similar sentiments were expressed by the postgraduate students who thought the term was overused. There was no consistent agreement among the students as to the meaning of the student experience although there were clear views about what it means to be a student (Christie, 2007). The younger students highlighted that their time at university was about becoming an adult and preparing themselves for the future. It was associated with change and becoming more independent, possibly because most of these students were experiencing university in the traditional, residential mode. Their perception conformed to the more traditional view of HE and their views of the student experience were often tied in with their expectations and shaped by school. Most of the mature and postgraduate students understood the student experience to mean the centrality of their academic experience especially their relationship with their tutor or supervisor. They saw it as personal to the individual and wanted it tailored to their needs.
The paper will detail the findings of Phase 2 of the research at the seven different HEIs including analysis of the students’ use of space whilst studying. It will also consider how this relates to their understanding of the student experience.
The paper will then discuss the implications of these findings to our understanding of the contemporary student experience and how we might begin to conceptualise the student experience and its potential applicability in other European countries.
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