In his article, Peter Scott bemoans the move from universities providing an academic education to universities providing students with an ‘experience’. The trends he highlights: a renewed focus on student services, institutions investing in mapping and tracking the ‘student journey’, and the treatment of students as customers, will be familiar to those who have worked in Higher Education over the last decade. However, the outcomes he describes are not inevitable, and universities investing in the ‘student experience’ are in fact having a significant impact – both on their students and the local community.
Scott rightly points out that universities should be places for ‘exploration and experimentation’, contending that this renewed enthusiasm for managing the student experience limits the ability of students to try new things. The evidence suggests otherwise. Investing in the student experience is creating a multitude of opportunities for students to explore activities outside of their courses and develop new skills and interests. Most institutions offer the opportunity to join performing arts groups, cultural societies, sports teams, community volunteering projects and much more.
Exemplary institutions not only offer a vast range of projects for students to get involved in, but also support students to set things up themselves – from small businesses, to social enterprises or student led volunteering projects. The aspects of student life that Scott is so quick to praise – ‘autonomy, spontaneity and even anarchy’ – are actually enhanced rather than limited when students are given proper training, funding and support to pursue their goals. In other words, investing in the student experience actually opens up opportunities for exploration, rather than limiting them.
Scott is correct to warn of the dangers of Universities providing top down services with little regard for the needs and interests of their students. This is why it’s crucial that institutions are receptive to what their students want, whether that’s about the cost of core course materials, how they invest their money or how they provide support for student social action. Universities should be listening to Students’ Unions, creating places for student voices to be heard throughout the management structure of the University, and supporting projects that allow students to pursue their own interests.
A number of institutions are leading the way in providing a student experience that provides something meaningful to both students and their local communities. The University of Manchester sets an example to the rest of the sector, investing in nine staff members to support community volunteering across the university and Students Union.
Another impressive example is one of our partners, the University of Winchester. Thanks to investment from the University, they have been able to give students the opportunity to tackle a range of social and environmental issues in Winchester, from educational disadvantage to elderly isolation. By following the double benefit model, the university contributes to their students’ experience, supporting them to pursue their interests and develop invaluable personal and professional skills, and have a positive impact in the local community.
In her study of the history of student volunteering, Georgina Brewis finds that the quality and impact of student volunteering has fluctuated throughout the last century, as funding for infrastructural support came and went. It’s too early to say whether this renewed focus on the ‘student experience’ will lead to sustained investment in student social action, but this could well be a positive outcome of the need for institutions to compete to provide the best student experience.
For Scott, this vogue for the ‘student experience’ is simply a (largely negative) side-effect of other worrying trends in Higher Education in recent years. It doesn’t have to be this way. If institutions listen to their students’ needs and invest in providing a range of opportunities for students to pursue their extracurricular interests, they can empower students to realise their entrepreneurial potential in tandem with their local communities. Only then will universities truly be able to boast that they’re putting “students at the heart of the system” – no decoding necessary.