Provost's and Vice-Provost's View: Why the student experience matters
8 October 2015
With the academic session beginning once again, and the campus alive with new and returning students, we are turning our attention to how we can ensure that their experience at UCL is as rewarding and fulfilling as possible.
Some of our departments are already leading the way in terms of students' satisfaction with what they do. UCL thrives on a culture of sharing good practice, and student experience should be no exception.
However, as mentioned in last week's Provost's View, the National Student Survey (NSS) results published in August, were, in general, disappointing. The drop in overall satisfaction at institutional level is significant, but, even more importantly, we have not improved our satisfaction scores on assessment and feedback from their low base since the NSS was introduced. As an institution, we all need to begin the process of taking a critical look as to why this might be, and to identify urgent steps to improve.
Improving the student experience is the highest priority for the year ahead for us both. It is the right thing for our students and we are also reminded of the proposed introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). The TEF is a government manifesto commitment that is likely to be introduced in full for 2017/18. Whilst there is still much debate across the sector about what the TEF will mean and how teaching excellence will actually be measured, it is clear that NSS will be a major element, particularly the teaching focused questions. As with the REF, it is crucial to our future that we are positioned to do well.
Government priorities notwithstanding, we want our students to have a truly outstanding experience with us. This is a principal commitment in UCL 2034 and so we want to set out a number of things happening over the coming months which are intended to move us towards that goal. Underpinning them all is the central idea of students and staff working together in partnership, not least by responding to their feedback with measured and appropriate action.
Annual Student Experience Review (ASER)
We have recently replaced the former annual monitoring process with a new departmental 'health check': the Annual Student Experience Review (ASER). ASER focuses attention on high-level data about student performance and satisfaction, with departments producing a developmental plan to address issues identified, with support from colleagues in Academic Services, CALT and ELE.
By reviewing the data available to us, including student and external examiner feedback, we can then plan more effectively to target the areas we need to improve. Significantly, the process has been developed to encourage as much student participation as possible - it is vital that our students are involved in plans to improve their education, so that we can benefit from their unique insights into how they learn.
We also encourage you to take a look through our updated Quality Review Framework which outlines the regulatory framework for monitoring standards, the student experience and strategic quality enhancement activities across UCL. This sets out the ways in which we involve students in the quality assurance process, such as through Staff-Student Consultative Committees.
For several years, we have been inviting students to share the good and the bad with us through our annual institutional surveys. From this term, we will be making it a priority to encourage students to give us their feedback, and improving the ways in which that feedback informs policy development at local and institutional level. Student surveys are central to the success of UCL - they provide key information about where we need to focus our resources. Put simply, from now, student feedback will drive change at UCL.
Your support is vital if we are to be successful in getting good response rates and encouraging students to engage; students are most likely to complete surveys if encouraged to do so by staff they know. Look out for the new surveys campaign this year - website resources and toolkits will soon be made available to guide you.
Our ambition for students to be at the heart of what we do is exemplified through the UCL ChangeMakers scheme, in which staff and students collaborate on long-term educational projects to enhance the student experience. ChangeMakers gives our learners the chance to create, develop and lead on projects by drawing on their expertise as a current UCL student to improve the learning experience for their peers. Through these funded projects, students are able to explore and research potential solutions with the assistance of a UCL staff member. We encourage you to get involved in the ChangeMakers initiative and assist our students as they move UCL forward.
We are acutely aware of the challenges that you are currently facing with the teaching estate. We recognise how frustrating timetabling challenges and lack of space is for staff and students alike. Strong student recruitment coupled with whole buildings being closed for refurbishment only intensifies those challenges.
However, over the last few months, we have created extra teaching spaces, such as the pop-up in the South Quad, and we've established a Learning Spaces Programme Board to look at the timetabling and rooming challenges we face and how we can improve and integrate our systems and processes. We are working hard so that, in the future, we will have improved our planning processes so that we can align student numbers with an appropriate supply of high-quality teaching spaces. This is not a quick process and we will need to continue to work collaboratively and collegially to ensure that we are able to deliver improvements next year and a big difference from 2017.
Education Strategy 2016-2021
The draft Education Strategy is currently in development and will go out for a second consultation soon, but the key themes emerged loud and clear during the first phase of consultation: the importance of our focus on education through research and enquiry, the potential of the staff-student partnership to drive improvement, and the need for sustained action on feedback and assessment. As in everything else, our learners will be a part of this process - their input will be vital in making sure we are heading in the right direction.
Higher Education Review
The next Higher Education Review (HER) of UCL by the QAA will take place in May 2016. Pre-visit documentation will be completed for the QAA team's review by early February 2016. Colleagues across the university are currently heavily involved in the preparations for the HER, where we will need to show how UCL meets sector expectations for:
1. the setting and maintenance of academic standards
2. the quality of student learning opportunities
3. the quality of information about learning opportunities
4. the enhancement of students' learning opportunities.
This is an important exercise for UCL and a positive outcome is just as important as was the REF for us nearly 12 months ago. It is a good opportunity for us to celebrate what we do well and also reflect on what we could do even better. However, we need to make sure that our house is in order and departments and faculties must be ready to engage fully in the review process. Please keep an eye out for updates throughout the next two terms.
Awareness of all of these processes is important but participation is fundamental to their success. We need to think not only about our own students, but also how we can create a welcoming, fulfilling and productive student experience for the entire student community.
Professor Michael Arthur, UCL President and Provost
Professor Anthony Smith, Vice-Provost (Education and Student Affairs)
Image: Personal tutoring workshop for UCL PGT students