New research published today by the HEA assesses how the management of the undergraduate student experience in English higher education is changing as a result of the more competitive environment, and the impact of the new tuition fee structure introduced in 2012.
Conducted by Dr Paul Temple and colleagues from the Institute of Education, the research sought answers to the following questions: are changes in the higher education landscape leading to changed institutional policies and practices which affect the student experience? Are there differences according to institutional types? Which managerial approaches appear to be the most effective in leading to enhanced student experiences, and why?
The small scale study used six higher education institutions as case studies: two with relatively high proportions of research income relative to total income; two in an intermediary group, and two with research income percentages at or below the median figure for the sector. It also drew on a specially convened focus group of academic and professional managers.
It found that the two research-intensive universities seemed to be responding to the changed environment in different ways to the other four institutions who were, in general, responding by centralising services, standardising procedures and strengthening management controls. For example, the research showed a removal of the responsibility for recruitment and admissions from academic departments, and a central determination of contact hours. Organisational change in the research-intensive examples, meanwhile, usually took the form of changing the reporting lines of student-related services to create more coherent functional groupings, rather than comprehensive reorganisations, the authors report.
Other key findings:
- the case study institutions have all placed greater emphasis on enhancing the quality of teaching and learning, a process usually begun before 2012, but given added emphasis since then. The report shows that the research-intensive institutions have become more prescriptive about teaching and learning matters, usually by issuing guidelines.
- there was an increased emphasis on employability across all institutional types, but with variations in emphasis. This new emphasis includes employment-related curriculum changes and enhanced support for advice and placements.
- higher tuition fees were affecting the character of students’ interactions with their universities everywhere, but the tendency to treat students as customers seemed to be more pronounced with managers at the less research-intensive universities.
The research tentatively suggests that the sector appears, on the issue of the management of the student experience in general, to be splitting into two distinct groupings – the research-intensive and the less research-intensive. As the study was small in scale, the finding would warrant further investigation.