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Unintended consequences? What impact do league tables have on Student Services and the student experience?

As part of its policy work, AMOSSHE hosts a series of strategy and policy discussions, AMOSSHE Futures. This AMOSSHE Futures policy breakfast took place from 10:00 to 13:00 on Friday 23 May 2014 at the AMOSSHE National Office, London.

Introduction

The topic was ‘Unintended consequences? What impact do league tables have on student services and the student experience?’ and Dr Chris Twine, Director of Student Services at the University of Birmingham chaired the discussion. Participants included representatives from the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU), the National Union of Students (NUS), The British Council, Ipsos MORI, The Complete University Guide, and representatives of six AMOSSHE member organisations.

Participants discussed the following topics:

  • Topic 1: Are league tables steering institutions towards making meaningful improvements to the student experience and helping to direct resources accordingly? Or are they leading to institutions prioritising and deprioritising certain areas in a way that is not helpful?
  • Topic 2: Do student services find league tables helpful when it comes to trying to influence decision-makers and plan ahead?
  • Topic 3: When league tables are published, do they help applicants to make informed choices about which institutions to apply for and study at? Or do they blur the decision-making process and lead to students making ill-informed decisions?
  • Topic 4: Would it be helpful to student services if league tables focused more explicitly on some of their work and its impact (for example by incorporating staff-student ratios for Disabilities Advisers, Careers Advisers)? Should AMOSSHE potentially look into this area in more detail?

This paper outlines the themes explored during ‘Unintended consequences? What impact do league tables have on student services and the student experience?’ The paper does not represent the policy stances or convictions of AMOSSHE or any of the groups in attendance. The paper is intended as a record of the issues considered and a starting point for further conversations.

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Discussion

Impact on the sector

Participants viewed league tables as a “fact of higher education life” that could be analysed critically and utilised to great effect. Greater competition and transparency in the sector has been a catalyst for meaningful improvements in student services, and have driven up standards on teaching and the student experience, which may not have happened without league tables. The publicity of qualitative satisfaction and dissatisfaction at higher education institutions (HEIs) in the UK has placed the learner voice higher on the agenda, and released enthusiasm and thought in its direction.

Nevertheless, participants felt that league tables were not entirely helpful – methodologically dubious and impossible to compare HEIs meaningfully. League tables were seen to draw attention to the problem areas within student services at HEIs rather than their areas of success. This can have adverse results due to the time lag between the time the problem may have been addressed and when the league table is released. As a result, it was argued that league tables often detract from the overall character of the strategy of HEIs by diverting energy away from utilising the rich data to focus on what HEIs aim to do and succeed at.

Furthermore, league tables create a sense of a “race to the top” as the league table position is used by applicants (and some VCs) as a proxy quality measure. However, as league tables quality indicators in the higher education sector, the quantification of aspects of the student experience is both limiting and worrying. The group feared that focus on quantifiable aspects of the student experience neglects vital elements of the student experience such as a sense of belonging. As such, it was argued that league table positions are not a holistic representation of the overall student experience and a poor reflection of the student lifecycle. It was suggested that the creators of league tables improve engagement with universities and students to ensure league tables embody and represent the true nature of the HEI student experience across HEIs in the UK.

Despite varying perceptions of their credibility, league tables are understood to be a key factor in influencing the choice to study at a given university, and thus are important to the student services landscape, and engaging colleagues to enhance student services. There is no quick fix, and while the higher education sector continues to be as competitive as it is, institutions will continue to place an emphasis and focus on league tables.

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Use

There was not really a sense that student services leaders “use” league tables within their institution. Nevertheless, their impact on raising the profile of the student experience in Russell Group HEIs that traditionally neglected the student experience was valued. ISB and iGrad, although not published as league tables, were agreed to be more useful as a dataset to student services due to their granular detail on the student experience at different points of the student lifecycle.

Participants recognised that changes to survey strategies must be made to mitigate data redundancy in the HE sector. It was suggested that HEIs should only survey students when it is clear how outputs will be used and how data will be fed back to students in the hope of driving a culture of appropriate assessment and feedback in the sector.

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Prospective students

Overseas recruitment has been consistent in countries where the league table position is of culturally important status. It was argued that in light of fee rises some parents of prospective international students are considering the rank of a university and the likelihood of their child’s employment. Additionally it was noted that prospective students are beginning to think instrumentally about their university choices, and increasingly describing their experience with regards to ‘value for money’. As we move into an ever increasing reductionist and consumerist way of thinking about universities, greater collaboration between universities and league tables will be key to ensure the appropriate narrative is being communicated to prospective students.

The group expressed concern that some students who base their choices exclusively on league tables, may end up at an HEI that may not be suited to their needs and expectations of the student experience. It is imperative that we educate the prospective student to ensure they are aligning their choice with the right HEIs; however the group recognised the difficulty in developing a broader narrative.

The group did not see the need for further reductionism in league tables by trying to “measure” certain student services (for example  disability services) in greater detail, but rather focus ought to be on outcomes and impact rather than input. Greater consideration should be given to possible changes over the student lifecycle and the importance of primary rather than secondary care.

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Final comments and observations

League tables have presented an opportunity for student services to have a greater impact within HEIs as student experience becomes more useful across the sector. This is driven in part by attention to the definition of student experience and how it can be measured.

As student services become more important in the future, there is a need to think about the resourcing and integration of services within HEIs.

Here's a PDF version of this Unintended consequences discussion paper (PDF 136 KB).

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AMOSSHE, The Student Services Organisation is a UK non-profit professional association. Company registration number 4778650.
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