From Birmingham, Alabama, to Birmingham, UK: the story of the UK Engagement Survey (UKES)

The UK Engagement Survey – or UKES for short – is growing in popularity among British universities. We look at why through the eyes of Birmingham City University

“At the end of the day BCU is investing in the student experience and something like UKES is an essential part of that.”  Jamie Morris, Assistant Lecturer in Student Engagement, Centre for Enhancement of Learning and Teaching, Birmingham City University 

There’s an old saying that when America sneezes, the world catches a cold. It’s not an altogether flattering adage, designed to illustrate how the rest of us rely on the USA to drive our lives. But sometimes that’s not an altogether bad thing, as a number of British universities are discovering courtesy of the Higher Education Academy.

Around the turn of the 21st century, a handful of forward thinking universities in the USA started surveying their undergraduates in a bid to find out more about how students engage with their studies. At the forefront of this revolution was the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), conceived by Indiana University with the aim of collecting information about students’ participation in programmes and activities provided by their respective institutions. The results, it was hoped, would illustrate how undergraduates spend their time and what they gain from attending higher education. And so it proved. Since 2000 in excess of five million students attending over 1600 colleges and universities have participated in the NSSE, providing indicators as to where higher education providers are performing well together with aspects of the undergraduate experience which could be improved.

Despite the NSSE’s success stateside, a survey of a similar nature remained notable by its absence across the Atlantic in the UK. Until recent years, that is. The Higher Education Academy, aware of what was happening in the USA and with the support of NSSE, began devising a pioneering survey of their own aimed at doing the same thing in British universities. The UK Engagement Survey (UKES) was the result. Road tested at a number of universities, UKES is now recognised as the only multi-institutional survey in Britain focusing on how students’ engage with their studies. 

Among the many universities now using UKES is Birmingham City University (BCU). BCU has a central department called the Centre for Enhancement of Learning or Teaching – or CELT for short – which initiates and develops policy and support aimed at enhancing both the student and staff learning experience. CELT was instrumental in bringing UKES to BCU where it is now regarded as an institutional marker, with Head of Student Engagement Luke Millard and Jamie Morris, Assistant Lecturer in Student Engagement, responsible for overseeing how the survey is administered.

“As a university that puts students first it was seen as a good thing to run UKES as a pilot at BCU,” says Jamie. “That went well and we are now into our third year of surveying our students. In fact around 10,000 e-mails have just gone out to first and second year undergraduates covering their experiences during the 2015/16 academic year. Our aim is to get as many of the students as possible to respond giving us as clear a picture of student learning at BCU as possible.”

Through UKES, institutions such as BCU can gather important data providing indicators as to what’s going right and what might need some attention within institutions. That data – which remains confidential – can also be used as a benchmark against other similar types of university. In addition the range of questions asked of undergraduates are not one-size-fits-all but can be tailored to suit particular programmes and/or schools. “We collate the data and circulate it to the Associate Deans of each faculty so that they have a breakdown of where they are at faculty level and also at programme level,” says Jamie of BCU’s experience. “It takes time to export all that data, especially when you have a cohort as large as BCU, but it’s definitely worth it especially when you can break down into first/second year experiences.”

Perhaps most importantly of all data resulting from specific UKES questions can highlight areas where particular groups of students might require assistance, enabling institutions to intervene and look at potential solutions. In an era when the concept of ‘learning gain’ (measuring the improvement in knowledge, skills, work and personal development made by students during their time in higher education) is increasingly important, UKES takes the shape of an effective predictor of student performance. Should BCU wish to intervene for the best in any area of undergraduate learning, then they can.

If there is one challenge when it comes to administering UKES, it is to ensure that student response rates continue to grow. “At BCU our response rate is around 10 per cent above the national average, but we are focusing on trying to get that even higher,” adds Jamie. “CELT encourages all our programme leaders to enable all their students to complete the survey. If necessary we can go over to a particular programme or school and brief the students about UKES to make sure they comprehend all the questions and how their answers will be used. At the end of the day BCU is investing in the student experience and something like UKES is an essential part of that.”

Rather than taking a back seat when it comes to universities administering UKES, the Higher Education Academy adopts an active supporting role working alongside institutions, something that’s certainly appreciated at BCU. And although some institutions prefer to take the driver’s seat when it comes to analysing UKES data, the HEA is ready and able to shoulder the burden on their behalf, providing a bespoke service to suit the requirements of individual universities.

“The HEA has been really helpful,” says Jamie. “It’s not just a case of leaving it to the individual universities to get on with. They offer a range of assistance from advice on boosting your response rates through to how best to administer the survey. We appreciate that. UKES is making a real difference at BCU and we certainly intend to carry on using it well into the future.”

For further information about UKES contact Jonathan Neves at the Higher Education Academy on 01904 717500, jonathan.neves@heacademy.ac.uk, or e-mail surveys@heacademy.co.uk

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