How Can We Bridge The University Expectation Gap?

12/07/2017 12:22 BST | Updated 12/07/2017 12:22 BST
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As 18-year-olds up and down the United Kingdom await the results of exams to see whether they have been accepted into their chosen university, the higher education sector has been engaged in furious debate about how to measure good teaching. This was sparked earlier this month by the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF): a government initiative which includes a ratings system (bronze, silver or gold) based on standard data, and evidence supplied by the university.

The debate has hinged around whether the TEF actually measures teaching quality, and seems likely to rage on for some time. But how does it look when you take a few steps back from the debate, and look at it from the perspective of a young person about to enter university?

In March and April this year, Unite Students and HEPI conducted a wide-ranging survey of over 2000 applicants to UK universities. Almost three quarters of applicants said it was important or very important to them that their university received a Gold TEF rating.

Whether or not this will change applicant behaviour in future years is uncertain. It is worth noting that the widely predicted steep drop in demand for university associated with the 2012 fee rises never materialised. What is not in doubt is that the applicants of today have high expectations about the academic side of their university experience.

To properly consider what applicants expect from their university, we need to understand some of the characteristics of this group. The report shows applicants to be academically engaged - 69% say their motivation for going to university is interest in their chosen subject - and expecting to work hard, with 86% believing that they will have to work harder than they did at school. They also seem prepared for independent guided learning: 95% understand there will be more independent study than at school. Three quarters of applicants are career-focused, coming to university with a chosen career in mind.

However, in just one instance of the "expectation gap" emerging from these findings, they tend to over-estimate the amount of contact time they will have with academic staff. 60% of applicants expect that they will spend more time in lectures than they did in the school classroom. On the other hand, the data from of a concurrent survey of 6500 students showed that only 19% of students reported that this was the case. Similarly, almost half (46%) of applicants expect more one-to-one support than they had at school, whereas only 36% of students agreed that this happened. There is also an expectation mismatch to reality in career planning: More than three quarters (78%) expect there will be more careers support at university than there was at schools, though only 60% of students believe this to be true.

We in the higher education ecosystem know that expectations matter. In the HEPI-HEA academic experience survey published earlier this year, it was revealed that "meeting expectations" was the strongest single driver of how much students say they have learned at university. It is also the biggest factor in whether they believe their course was value for money.

This tells us that the mismatch of expectations revealed by the Unite-HEPI report is almost certainly having a negative effect on student satisfaction, which means that it may ultimately even contribute to students leaving university. The impact of this on individual students can be devastating. In the new world of TEF, in which student satisfaction plays a real role in the evaluation of quality, it could also be highly detrimental to universities themselves.

While there is no simple answer to this, the Unite-HEPI report suggests there are things that can be done.

Firstly, schools, colleges and universities could do more to help applicants understand the type of learning on offer at university, and why this is beneficial to students. Independent directed learning is a skill like any other, and perhaps should be taught more explicitly.

Secondly, that there may be opportunities within the first year of university study to provide a more staged transition to independent learning.

To this I would add a third: that all of us involved in working with students should take the time to see the world through applicants' eyes and understand what they want and why. We should all be prepared to adapt our current offer and established ways of working. Applicants, after all, are not mere consumers. They are active partners in their own learning and we can all go further to meet them where they are.

** 'Reality Check' was conducted by Unite Students and the Higher Education Policy Institute. Jenny Shaw is Head of Head of Student Services & Insight at Unite Students **