Last week, I spoke at UUK’s Enhancing the Student Experience Conference. I was involved in setting up the very first Student Experience Conference back in 2007, when I was Director of the 1994 Group, so its a great pleasure for me see it still going strong after the best part of decade.
Back then, as £3,000 fees had just come into being, the sector was starting on its journey to realising how powerful a good student experience could be and just how big an opportunity for innovation there was. There were 300 people at that first conference, but its fair to say there were no pro-vice chancellors for the student experience. Here in 2015, we find ourselves in a very different place. At the conference, we heard how to put the student experience at the heart of university strategy and we heard more about the government’s plans for TEF – a policy they believe will ensure it is the student who is at the centre of every university and its future planning.
At UPP, we see our business model as a genuine partnership with the sector and as an extension – with the student. That’s why every year we commission a survey of over 1,000 applicants and first years – to help us and the sector understand how students make decisions and how they see their university journey.
This year we focussed on employability and asked students to tell us about how they see their futures and why they felt university was the best option for them. We took this research to the sector and – with the help of the team at the Higher Education Policy Institute – hosted two round-tables with university leaders, policy experts from the think-tank world and politicians to see how they reacted to our findings and help us to draw out a set of conclusions and recommendations.
So what did we find? Our survey evidence painted a kind of ‘push-me-pull-me’ motivation for choosing university – students feeling the push of setting themselves up for life and the pull of university lifestyle as a ‘rite of passage’ and wanting the ‘student experience’. This is perhaps not that surprising and feels completely rational to us. The notion of a “graduate earnings premium” continues to hold sway over the majority – in all probability you will earn more over your lifetime as a graduate than as a non-graduate.
Interestingly, when we asked our respondents if they had considered other options – 70% said they had. What was telling however was that twice as many students had considered paid work as an apprenticeship. Interestingly when we asked what would make apprenticeships more appealing the answer was more vocational pathways that replicate university life – both in terms of providing a recognized degree equivalent qualification with a wider range of subjects and similar impact on earnings and also the softer “experience” side hosted on a campus.
We found a great deal of appetite, amongst experts from the sector, for further university involvement in providing the academic components of vocational training – particularly in areas like engineering. However, real problems in making this work – particularly with SMEs – were highlighted also.
Vocational partnerships between HE institutions and businesses tend to be skewed towards larger employers who have the means to invest and the numbers to fill a course. It is more challenging to create courses that appeal to a sufficiently broad base of SMEs, who may be keen to offer high-quality apprenticeships but to just one or two students a year.
So in this report we suggest universities could overcome some of these issues by forming consortia to run rolling modular vocational courses – “a build your own” approach to an apprenticeship. Under such as model, several universities would come together to offer one or two modules towards a single vocational course with – for example – one institution offering Business Management and another Electronic Engineering. This could be particularly effective in large conurbations with multiple universities.
With employability front of mind for students and with vocational training very much at the centre of the governments drive for skills. There’s a real opportunity for real innovation in the higher education sector to be part of the solution. We hope this piece of work will be food for thought.