Keeping students happy has become a real concern. It is rare to find a university that doesn't wait on tenterhooks for the results of the National Student Survey. It would be all too easy to treat students as consumers that must be kept superficially happy, especially when student complaints make national headlines. But of course most universities are rightly uneasy with such an approach, because it has very little to do with what is really important to students.
So what does matter to students, what is on their minds and what are their fears and concerns? These were some of the big questions I wanted us to tackle when we embarked on Students Matter, Unite Students' third annual student experience survey of over 3,500 students and applicants. Students Matter looks at the wider influences that play an important part in the student experience, from accommodation, employability, financial matters, integration and digital. The way in which students live can have a profound effect on their ability to study and participate in wider student life, and therefore on their future success.
Some of the results were surprising. For example students reported that money was the number one thing on their mind, higher even than their course. Those applying to university also showed a preoccupation with money, but of a different kind. An amazing 60% did not know if they would have enough money to live while at university.
Students find the money for university from a number of different sources. The 'bank of Mum and Dad' is still the most popular way of financing higher education, along with loans and grants, but 11% of undergraduates rely on credit cards and a worrying 2% on payday loans. This would imply over 250,000 students and 46,000 students in the UK respectively.
However students are not opting for budget digs in an effort to save money. Demand for halls of residence is as high as ever, and among applicants planning to move away from home, 92% have their sights set on halls. Students highlighted many benefits of living in a student community, many of them social, but also including the ability to mix with people from different backgrounds and to learn from others. Fortunately, satisfaction levels with student accommodation, including with price, remain high across the board.
When it comes to their future, students are less relaxed. The majority of students polled said that they were motivated by love of the subject, but future employment came in as a close second. Students are significantly less optimistic about their chances of getting a job than those surveyed last year, with 42% believing that it would be challenging or impossible to find the job they want.
A survey such as this can only ever give a snapshot in time, but it does demonstrate the complexity and the diversity of student life. For example there were many significant differences between male and female student responses in the survey, especially in the area of self-confidence.
It also highlights the difference between student concerns, and how they actually behave, meaning that responding to student complaints at a superficial level is not likely to be effective. Instead, we need to understand and respond to their motivations and goals, many of which are of a long-term nature, and ensure that services, facilities and resources are aligned to support these.
Students Matter was published by Unite Students on 12 June 2014, download the full report here.