Like the VET sector’s student outcomes survey, higher education gathers data through the student experience survey run the Social Research Centre.

It reports on experiences of both university and non-university higher ed. students. The big news is that small is beautiful.

The survey

The QILT survey program includes not only this latest one on the student experience, but also others on graduate outcomes and employer satisfaction. Nearly 278,000 responded to the survey, with just over 28,000 of them studying at 77 non-university higher education institutions (NUHEIs). The overall response rate to the survey was 42.6%. Institutional response rates overall were variable however, ranging from around 17.5% to 83.5%.

The survey itself focuses on 5 aspects of the student experience:  skills development, learner engagement, teaching quality, student support and learning resources with another capturing a rating of the overall experience.

What the survey found

In 2019 they reported that “the overwhelming majority of undergraduate students, 78 per cent, rated the quality of their entire educational experience positively.” (In comparison, the satisfaction figure in NCVER’s VET student outcomes survey is that 88% of graduates and 91.4% of subject completers were satisfied with the quality of their training.)

In most cases the attributes of quality for higher education have remained quite stable over time and certainly since 2014. So, this raises another issue: what is quality? Certainly, teaching quality is an important issue, but so is the level of student support institutions provide. Let’s explore that a bit more. Quality, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and is a very abstract construct not easily measured in education.

The rating of the quality of the experience in higher ed, though, seems to depend on where you are in the study pathway. The report said that:

“Commencing undergraduate students were more often positive than later year students, with respect to Teaching Quality, Student Support, Learning Resources and the quality of their entire educational experience, by up to 8 percentage points. “

That really does not surprise us, because the issue is that students with some experience of tertiary education may have a different view of quality and satisfaction from those having their ‘first experience’ whatever the sector, and student ratings do vary by institution, indicating that there are sites of best practice in the student experience. They found that institutions characterised by small numbers of students tended to have the best student ratings. The survey also found that there were some non-university higher education institutions where students rate the quality of their overall education experience much higher than in other institutions. In fact, 11 NUHEIs have positive student ratings for the quality of the entire educational experience at over 90%.

Average ratings may hide variations

The survey found that the quality of the student experience varied considerably by study area. For example, studies in rehabilitation were highest, while dentistry was the lowest, and the most disparate attribute was learner engagement. However, the report also noted “broad disciplinary aggregations hide much of the detail that is relevant to schools, faculties

and academic departments.” As with many things, the devil is in the detail, as is the path to making real improvements in the quality of the student experience.

Do I stay in higher ed, or do I go?

Students were also asked whether they had seriously considered leaving higher education in 2019, and “overall, 20 per cent of undergraduate students indicated that they had considered leaving.” For the most part, this was because of:

“situational factors, such as health or stress (46%), study/ life balance (30%), the need to do paid work (27%), difficulties relating to workload (25%), unspecified personal reasons (25%) and financial difficulties (23%).”

Of the institutional factors in play, the most common were that their expectations

had not been met (22%), career prospects (18%) and quality concerns (16%), which may indicate that looking at factors that contribute to attrition and retention are worth looking into.

And in a late update!

Graduate employment results for 2020 have just been released, and you can find the report of that survey here. Briefly, and as a result of COVID, “the full-time undergraduate employment rate … fell from 72.2 per cent to 68.7 per cent, the second lowest result ever since the 68.1 per cent reported in 2014.” However, the story is that “graduates with vocational degrees have fared better in the labour market impacted by COVID-19 restrictions.”