Overall student satisfaction at UWE has dropped, according to the National Student Survey.
The NSS, described on its website as ‘your opportunity to give your opinions on your institution and things that you felt could have been improved’, shows that UWE has dropped three percentage points in the area that it has always been most proud of.
The student experience that UWE provides and the drop, on question 22 (overall student satisfaction), has raised serious questions over where things are lacking. WesternEye interviewed UWE vice-chancellor Steve West and asked him why students are less happy with their experience and what was going to be done about it.
Mr. West puts the overall drop down to a variation in individual program performance across UWE. More specifically, while some courses are excelling, others are dragging their collective feet causing a drop in the overall level of satisfaction.
“I’m not happy with the results and think that they are disappointing”
So how has such a varying degree of satisfaction been allowed to develop at a university that has always prided itself on its student experience? This does not seem in-keeping with the ‘marketisation of education’ analysis or the observation that students are now consumers.
Recent events in the institutional and national spheres could be surmised to have affected staff morale. Course closures and mergers at UWE and the mad axe man, Chancellor Osborne, swinging like a lumberjack on speed cannot make academic staff sleep easily. But West is adamant that this should not affect student satisfaction.
“Let’s not lose sight of the fact that the student experience has not changed in terms of the student union, facilities and other things going on around them.”
Evidence of staff dissatisfaction has filtered through students comments in the NSS. “Staff morale is important. Some of the comments that are coming back are clearly not ‘student comments’ but comments that they have picked up from staff. Cuts are a good example.”
UWE Professor, Peter Broks, who is also vice-president of the Universities and Colleges Union at UWE, stated in an article to The Guardian that complying with government demands had left UWE “being fairly average”.
Mr. West refutes this statement strongly. “I don’t think that we are an average university. If Peter’s only measure of a university is against Oxbridge type metrics, then he’d be right, we are in the middle of the pack. But if you look at some other areas at UWE, such as arts research, these are world class.”
Mr. West is adamant that, by expanding in these specific areas, UWE will begin to move up in the global league tables which he labels “crude”.
Professor Broks asserted in The Guardian that, “If we had stuck to what we were doing well – working hard, being efficient, running the sorts of courses we did well, I think we could have ended up in a better position.”
“Peter has his views and that’s fine, they might not accord with my views, they might not accord with other staffs’ views. But it’s my job to steer a course that is suitable for this university and that is right for this university.”
West says that problems with certain programs will not continue now that they have become apparent. A breakdown in communication between teaching staff, students and program leaders has been discovered and is being addressed through action plans. These action plans will be signed off and monitored at the highest levels.
The heads of department will be accountable for delivery of those actions as part of their performance indicator. Mr. West is adamant that if program leaders are unable to meet his standard, action will be taken.
Tough words, but Mr. West maintains that if UWE cannot get the fundamentals right, then it has no chance of being a world class university.
“Staff are going to say that this is a bit heavy. It’s not heavy it’s about getting the basics right in a university that prides itself on the student experience and having good learning and teaching. People are going to be held to account.”
How this will translate into a trans-departmental shake up is unforeseeable. Invariably at UWE there will be a ‘guinea pig’ period that could result in some chopping and changing; ultimately it will come down to how students respond to any program changes.
Mr. West’s mantra seems to be that a system of student feedback, assessment and action is the key to a successful UWE, he also outlines a strategy to take the elements that work from one program and transferring them to others that are flagging.
“We don’t complete the loop of student feedback and implementation of changes.” In an effort to gain a deeper insight into student needs and concerns, West suggests a ‘Vice Chancellor’s question time’.
Things of this nature have proved successful in the past and in theory offer an open forum between the university and what have become “it’s clients”.
‘Please take the time to fill out one of our customer satisfaction forms before leaving’ may well be printed on your degree certificate.