A new report published by the HEA highlights that across all its main surveys demographic diversity is a stronger predictor of the experience than the type of institution attended.
This finding has key implications for both sector and institutional strategy, in that institution-wide approaches to maximising the student experience are unlikely to be fully successful unless policies are tailored to overcoming the needs of, and barriers faced by, specific demographic groups.
Authored by Christian Bokhove and Daniel Muijs at the University of Southampton, multilevel modelling analysis has been conducted on several years of data from the HEAs three flagship sector surveys, UKES (United Kingdom Engagement Survey), PTES (Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey) and PRES (Postgraduate Research Experience Survey). The analysis aimed to explore the extent to which institutional or demographic characteristics can explain variances in students’ experience and engagement.
There are clearly institutional-level differences in the results, for example, higher satisfaction with research resources and a greater sense of research culture within the Russell Group, and lower postgraduate satisfaction at institutions in London, but on the whole these are eclipsed by demographic factors.
Most striking among these demographic factors, is that disability has a significant negative impact on student experience and student engagement – across all surveys and all years. Clearly, there are still barriers to be overcome for the sector as a whole which transcend the many examples of positive work being done.
The impact of ethnicity, by contrast, is encouraging. On the whole, non-white students have a positive student experience and student engagement – again this is generally the case across all three surveys.
The multi-level modelling allowed ethnicity to be separated from country of origin, which was also an important factor. Students from African and Asian countries also show higher levels of engagement and satisfaction compared to students from the UK, underlying analysis from UKES which showed students form these regions participating more fully in different types of activity at university. An exception to this is students from Australasia and North America, who are less positive about their taught postgraduate experience in particular than their UK counterparts.
The picture on gender is more mixed, but a broadly consistent theme does emerge from PTES and PRES in that female postgraduate students tend to experience lower satisfaction and engagement – but this is not repeated to the same extent at undergraduate level.
The UK Engagement Survey (UKES) provides the main exception to our overall narrative, by identifying a relatively significant institutional impact. One of the key areas of coverage, collaborative learning, has already been identified by the HEA as having a major impact on the skills development of undergraduates. It is therefore striking here that type of institution has been found to have an impact on the extent to which students engage with such collaborative learning. Specifically, students at Post-92 universities show higher levels of engagement with their peers, a key difference that provides food for thought when comparing university mission groups.
Commenting on the finding, Professor Stephanie Marshall, Chief Executive of the HEA, said, “Clearly, the analysis highlighted in this report does not imply a causal effect, and necessarily simplifies a multifaceted situation. However, we do believe that by highlighting the importance of demographic characteristics, this report makes an interesting contribution to the debate around university choice and the drive for enhancement of the student experience."