The degree course gamble

Improving the odds


Improving the odds

With higher costs and the growing importance of securing a good grade, students are demanding better value for money from their courses. So what are students looking for and what changes can be made by universities to meet expectations?

Under the current funding model in England, students are investing unprecedented levels of money in their higher education. Surely it is only fair to expect institutions to do the same in return. Is University spending driven by the need to compete in university league tables or the learning experience and quality of the graduates they produce? Maybe the balance of power is set to change in favour of the student.


What we do know is the Higher education sector is seeing big and growing differences across the UK due to varying fee structures. Whilst the UK’s National Student Survey 2014 results show overall student satisfaction levels at a record high, this year’s survey was a bit more revealing than earlier ones because it displayed the first comprehensive picture of those students paying £9,000 to attend English higher education institutions. Students in Scotland (Northern Ireland and Wales) generally think they are getting good value for money while students in England are paying much more but receiving only a little more. In England, one in three students say they are getting poor value for money - nearly twice as high as before the new fees were introduced. The same survey also found 31% who said they would definitely or maybe have chosen another course if they were to have their time again.

When asked by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) and the Higher Education Academy (HEA) what their top three priorities would be for institutional expenditure- 48% of UK students polled said "reducing fee levels", followed by having more teaching hours and reducing the size of teaching groups (both 35%). Lesson learnt – be careful what question you ask as you may not like the answer!

What do recent HE reports tell us about student expectations and perceptions of higher education?

  • They have a new consumerist ethos towards higher education
  • There is a lack of clear information on quality of teaching and staff
  • A failure to meet facilities and resource expectations: instrumental (computers and physical spaces); organisational (timetabling and course structure); interpersonal (staff support and engagement); and academic (lecturers’ knowledge and attitude towards students).
  • Students value face‐to‐face interactions for learning and support. Students viewed technology as a means to access resources and support studying.
  • The primary purpose for students entering higher education was to improve their career prospects and as a pathway for career enhancement. Students expected institutions to offer advice and guidance to support them in developing their employability for future careers within and beyond their formal course.
  • Students were concerned about evaluation and feedback at the course‐level
  • Students wanted staff to be qualified and trained, and students expressed a desire for procedures to manage “bad teaching”
  • Students wanted a personalised higher education experience, with small teaching sessions, opportunities to meet other staff and students.
  • Students wanted opportunities to interact with other students through Students’ Union societies and clubs, institutional activities and other social opportunities
  • Students felt lost, unsure of what was expected of them and not sure of where to go for assistance in their transition to higher education.

Whilst the ‘value for money’ debate will no doubt continue in the corridors of power and across Student Union bars for some time yet, Universities do need to get to grips with these issues:

  • Institutions and the sector need to explain the relationship between fees and the quality and value of their degree. There is also a need for financial education and information for students on how universities are funded and where their money goes.
  • Greater information and transparency to allow students to choose courses: qualifications held by academics in their subject(s), how academics are hired and trained; how teaching is structured and allocated e.g. size of tutorials/ seminars, department‐level teaching staff‐student ratios and staff teaching qualifications.
  • Institutions should be cautious of using facilities and resources as marketing opportunities and setting unrealistic expectations or ‘selling’ an undeliverable experience.
  • Caution against using technology as a replacement for face‐to‐face interactions, or as a substitute for developing an active and collaborative learning environment and community.
  • Students want more support for their employability with a focus on ‘process’ and development opportunities including internships, placements and work experience.
  • Institutional policies should prioritise quality, format and timing of feedback in relation to other assessments, managed at the course level, over standardised feedback turnaround times.
  • A need for strong course‐level management of curriculum, quality and standards There should be support for ongoing staff development and training, public information about teaching qualifications, and institutional reward for teaching and recognition of teaching excellence.
  • The role and function of personal and academic tutors may need to be revised at some institutions. Students should have clear avenues for support that they are comfortable using for personal and academic concerns.
  • There needs to be sophisticated promotion and coordination of student services, within institutions; this means building relationships between Students’ Unions, institutional student services and support and departmental activities.
  • Institutions should consider direct interventions strategies, such as peer mentoring of incoming students.


Students are not who they used to be. They are savvy, demanding and want to be treated as customers.

Record tuition fees, growing student debt combined with shrinking financial and educational returns are all challenging the traditional perception that a university education is a good investment.

If nothing changes then maybe the time has come for our children to skip higher education altogether - move out of home, get a job, pay their own way while they still know everything!

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