The context of learning in higher education
As students progress through the student lifecycle at university, they need a range of academic and personal services plus advice and support in order to succeed. This requires the input, collaboration and coordination of a range of key service providers consisting of academic and professional service staff (non-academic staff) from across an institution at university level, and also the student’s academic home unit with whom they tend to identify (referred to as the home unit hereafter). The home unit can be at faculty, department, school or course level. Professional service staff, although not directly involved in the academic strand of the student experience are essential contributors through their various roles and functions, such as student support and student funding. Enhancing the student experience today is an important activity for all staff within HE. With the increasing pressures on HE, such as increased student numbers and declining resources, trying to improve and enhance the experience of the undergraduate student across the student lifecycle is often challenging, frustrating and confusing for staff. The student expects and demands support, advice and guidance which meets their specific needs (academic and personal) throughout their studies. For an institution that may have between 8,000 and 20,000 other students for whom they also need to provide a quality student experience, this is not only a major challenge but can seem impossible. There is the danger that an institution will minimise a change in student experience strategy if it does not appear to offer immediate monetary gain. There are also contested themes within HE today. There is a growing concept of the student being a ‘customer’ rather than a ‘consumer’ of education, and a drive for students to be ‘clients’ and ‘partners’ with their institutions in their learning process. This is a substantial move away from the traditional delivery of HE. However, the benefits of making the student and institution face up to their joint responsibilities are beneficial to both. They must recognise that there is a myriad of issues, pressures and challenges in delivering and enjoying an excellent quality student experience. Providing targeted individual support that leaves the student satisfied is a complex activity to comprehend and deliver. As a result, it is understandable why an institution, central support units or the student’s home unit may adopt the fall-back position of the ‘one size fits all’ approach. This limited approach enables them to provide a range of basic services to all students as well as being seen to be doing ‘something’ to improve the student experience. However, this is not suitable for today’s HE environment or the needs of the modern student.
Staff at all levels, and across all areas within an institution, are developing and implementing initiatives to improve and enhance the student experience whether they are directly engaging with students or on the periphery, thus making them all ‘practitioners’ in the student experience. This could include the admissions administrator improving the information available for potential applicants; the academic improving his/her feedback to students; or central welfare departments ensuring that their services are being advertised and supported within a student’s home unit. Often, these changes are small and incremental and they have occurred because of feedback arising out of a specific activity by certain groups, such as students, staff or applicants. Sometimes, initiatives are university-wide and large scale, driven by external and internal requirements. Both processes can be informed by internal, national and international research and both make an important contribution to improving and enhancing the student experience. Regardless of how small or large the initiative, it is critical that any changes are at the very minimum communicated to all key service providers, staff and students and at best, and that all the key service providers are involved in the planning stage.