Snarking the Hunt – II – The Student Experience

Purple Globe, via School of Education TCD websiteThe second panel of Thursday’s CAVE Seminar (pdf) on the National Strategy for Higher Education (the Hunt Report) concerned The Student Experience. It was chaired by Dr Patrick Geoghegan (TCD), and featured Martin McAndrew (Vice President, TCD GSU), Dr Mary-Liz Trant (HEA), Dr Austin Hanley (Athlone IT), and Dr Aiden Kenny (TUI). There were several connections between the first panel and this one. Two stood out. In this morning’s panel, Tony welcomed the emphasis in Hunt on generic skills as an important aspect teaching and learning, and he argued that there is no inherent conflict between academic values and employability skills. By way of contrast, in this panel, Austin recalled the negative impact of fees on student participation, and commented that “you have to have the opportunity to go to College to have a student experience”. Both of these themes recurred throughout this second panel.

Aiden explicitly argued that quality and cuts are antithetical, and although academic staff have so far managed to maintain academic quality and standards, a crisis point is nearing: the mounting workload is not sustainable, and (recalling a point made by Mike and Erika in the first panel) and the voice of academic expertise seems excluded from the development of policy in this area. Providing specific figures for much of the discussion in both panels, Aiden demonstrated the dramatic increase in participation in education, especially by non-traditional students and in higher education (HE). In particular, participation in HE is up by 554% since 1970, and a further increase of more than 70% of the current numbers is projected by 2030. However, even as student numbers increase, funding and staff numbers go the other way. Funding is down 15% in 3 years, and staff numbers are down more than 10% over 4 years (especially due to the major impact of the employment control frameworks – which I blogged about here and here). All of this is to the detriment of the HE sector in general and of the student experience (unreplaced lecturers, amalgamated classes, reduced expenditure on student services).

Many of Aiden’s points were supported by a survey his union had undertaken amongst its HE members. So also were many of Austin’s. In the context of debate between IT Engineering Schools and Engineers Ireland, the heads of the Engineering Schools recently conducted a survey of engineering graduates over the last 10 years, which provided very important data across a whole range of issues. And Mary-Liz reported that in a survey of last year’s cohort on the Springboard programme (by which HEIs provide courses to upskill the unemployed), 86% were pleased with the initiative and the colleges involved. These surveys, in their particular contexts, produced verifiable and useable data on many issues, including the reflexive analysis of the student experience. As a consequence, Mary-Liz was very strongly in favour of the National Student Survey recommended by Hunt. All were agreed with her point that it is crucial that the student voice is heard and heeded in the development and implementation the Hunt recommendations, and she argued that the three surveys mentioned by the panel showed what the National Survey could achieve. During questions after the panel presentations, Dr Clarie Laudet (Senior Tutor, TCD) from the floor, raised concerns about how to conduct such a survey and about what its results might be used for (worried about “league tables of the worst kind”). In reply, Mary-Liz emphasised both that the survey would simply be one mechanism of engagement with students for specific purposes relating to the student experience. In his presentation, however, Austin had earlier rather poured cold water on the possible impact of the survey. He observed that whilst an appropriate culture of collegiality and support is crucial to the student experience, this is not often in the mind of heads of school dealing with a wide range of challenges or academic managers of research groups focussing on return on investment and research output. Moreover, he said that, whilst Hunt’s analysis of and recommendations relating to the student experience were welcome, there is a danger that the Report will have little benefits to the students, as the debate has been all about the organisation and costs of the HE sector.

That was a theme re-emphasised by Martin. He was the first speaker in this panel, providing the student perspective on the student experience, and for my money it was the best presentation of the day. Martin effectively told us the kinds of things the National Student Survey is likely to canvass, and the results were decidedly mixed. He began by anathematising the idea of a student as a “customer” (echoing Mike’s rejection in the first panel of the “commodification” of HE), but he then turned to the rather better news, taking his cue from TCD’s reference to “the Trinity Experience” in particular rather than to the student experience more generally or generically. He presented this as an example of a general trend among HEIs to distinguish themselves from one another, and this is Trinity’s way of setting out its stall, encompassing state of the art facilities, unrivalled pastoral support, a wide range of active clubs societies and publications, or a diverse array of courses. He drew three morals from this. First, he argued that students’ participation in College life should be seen in co-curricular rather than extra-curricular terms. Second, the reputation of a College like Trinity is not just national but international. And third, the dividends from a good trinity experience relate not just to the short term benefits to the current student body (this week saw the celebration of academic achievement with the election of Scholars and the commendation of student volunteering and engagement in the Dean of Students’ Roll of Honour) but also to the long term connections which alumni forge with College.

The two panel discussions generated a great deal of lively discussion, which continued in the workshop sessions, and these will be the subject of my next post.