Rethinking student experience
Part Two – How should we put it right?
In my previous guest post, I shared three major ways in which the NSS has gone wrong. Its narrow view of the student experience, its lack of interest in active dissatisfaction and the consequence of prioritising metrics over experiences make it clear that the NSS is not fit for purpose. So what do we do next?
To start with, we need to get back to the real purpose of NSS. That is, what it should have been – an exercise that highlights how universities can improve the student experience. This starts with establishing a common understanding across the sector that student experience includes a wider range of factors; academic experience, affordability, mental health provision, a sense of belonging, extra-curricular activities and more.
Secondly, to get a rich view of ‘experience’ at a University we have to listen to just that; students’ experiences, not students’ relative agreement to stock statements. This is why the open comments section of the NSS is so important. It can be overwhelming to work through volumes of qualitative insight, but it’s never been more important if we want to understand what drives our students and what worries them. Universities have bright, articulate students on their campus who can share what it’s like to be studying at their institution, but the institution has to have the resource and time to be able to listen. It might help to use quantitative data to identify areas for investigation, but the value will always lie in the qualitative.
Next, for this to be meaningful, we have to instil a tailored approach to both the data gathering and the proposed solutions to problems. It’s not enough that a white, middle class, cis-gendered, able-bodied student reports a fantastic experience. We also need to know black students’ experiences of mental health provision, whether care leavers are able to access extra-curricular activities and what stops disabled students from navigating the local transport provision? When the focus shifts from an external perception of a singular student experience to an internal one, it means concentrating on students’ experiences – plural.
Working in this way gives the opportunity for the solution-finding process to be collaborative. This means involving the affected students in developing the solutions. By sharing the challenges and limitations around implementation, it allows for a united approach that brings pragmatic, innovative and progressive resolutions. Collective intelligence helps solves complex problems.
Finally, this process has to be a continuous partnership, carried out visibly in real time. NSS data gives insight into an experience of the past 3 years, but more immediacy is needed to affect real change. Students need to be heard and their concerns addressed whilst they’re still at the institution. This culture of continual feedback means candid conversations with students and being challenged to find solutions to difficult issues would be the norm.
So, if your institution has become stuck on a singular view of student experience that is concentrated only on NSS and you are keen to create real positive change for your students, then talk to Halpin. We can help you to find an approach that is purposeful, qualitative, tailored, collaborative and carried out in real time. It’s too easy to become preoccupied with the NSS, but it doesn’t need to be a barrier to also finding an approach that actually makes meaningful improvements to the student experience.
Eve Alcock is Former President of The University of Bath’s Students’ Union and a HE policy enthusiast.