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Great Expectations or As You Like It?

This article was originally posted on Warwick's HE Guest Blog, a page for Warwick staff featuring views from their colleagues on Higher Education. This entry is from University Registrar and Chief Operating Officer Ken Sloan and orginally appeared on the Ethos Journal as part of an exchange with former NUS-President Aaron Porter and Bob Hogg, executive director of Strategic Partnerships, Serco UK & Europe.


Ken Sloan, Registrar and Chief Operating Officer, responds:

"Aaron’s and Bob’s articles both capture a number of key dilemmas facing those responsible for designing and implementing the policies that are reshaping higher education in England. They characterise the growth of the ‘demanding student’ as being a recent phenomenon, as well as characterising higher education through the lens of teaching and learning.

This, perhaps, misses the way institutions have grown in recent decades, as well as underplaying the broader student experience and the role of research and scholarship. Aaron argues for a performance-based funding system, while Bob rightly highlights the role of the student in affecting the quality of their higher education by the level of engagement and commitment that they demonstrate.

My dilemma is that, while I acknowledge that the focus on student choice and satisfaction has been given greater voice through recent changes to funding, I don’t recognise the ‘system’ they describe, where institutional attention to this is only a recent thing. I also hesitate at such a narrow definition of what might motivate students to go into higher education. Surveys on student choice and attitudes demonstrate a much wider range of motivations than recent ‘innovations’ in performance and satisfaction data might suggest.

Where in their arguments is the place of students seeking a broader cultural experience? The sector has been characterised by a rapid expansion in international students who are too quickly characterised by their financial contribution rather than the positive development they get from, and contribute to, student communities.

Where is the place of students seeking a particular living experience? Students are motivated to consider city living versus campus living, small versus large institution, which each offer a different experience.

Where is the place of volunteering, work experience, culture and sport as key drivers of personal growth community, competition and cohesion? Without such things the shape of the Warwick campus would be significantly less interesting, and key investments in sport and the Warwick Arts Centre would not have been needed.

Where is the recognition that institutions have had to operate and compete in a high-fee environment for many years? The growth in postgraduate taught programmes and the expansion of international students at all levels over the past 25 years are key indicators of institutions securing their position in a highly competitive international market place.

Finally, where is the place of research and its contribution to institutional reputation and societal development? Surely securing future reputation and impact is as important to students who are seeking to deliver long-term value from their investment, as well as having an excellent student experience at the time?

Is the recent push for a greater role and voice for students not important? Of course it is. To continue to compete in a global market of higher education opportunities, it is vital that institutions engage closely with their students and enable their unique insight and voice to shape the development of how and what they offer. It is vital that students know institutions listen and are responsive. It is also vital that institutions demonstrate that they can deliver value to their students, and deliver what they say they will.

The shift to predominantly competitive teaching funding means that poor provision and low standards will be met by reduced applications and potentially some non-viable organisations. The direct impact of performance on funding is therefore clear.

Yet it is equally vital for students to enter higher education knowing that the expectations that institutions have for them are at least as great as those they have for their institutions. If students do not strive to meet those expectations it will have an impact on the experience they have, and while institutions can take steps to mitigate this, they cannot replace individual student endeavour. A partnership approach to investment and effort is vital.

higher education institutions strive to deliver long-term value to students, to graduates, to government, to industry and to other sectors. All these stakeholders have an interest in how institutions are performing and will invest accordingly based on performance. I support both Aaron’s and Bob’s call for greater information and for a commitment to delivering sustained high levels of satisfaction.

Many institutions will need to explore different operational and structural models to secure this in an increasingly competitive domestic and international marketplace. This will include a growth in deeper partnerships and purposeful collaborations within and outside of the higher education sector.

The key risk of current policy as I see it is that, if the funding and resource model shifts to one driven only by a short-term student experience and perspective, it may be more a case of As You Like It at the time, but the Great Expectations that we all have for enhanced longer term reputation for higher education in the UK, its institutions and their graduates, may be less deliverable."