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Charting a winning course: how student experiences will shape the future of higher education

Following the successful launch of our latest report on the experiences and expectations of university leaders, on 2 July we held an invitation event to discuss the issues raised by the report, attended by over 20 guests including vice-chancellors, senior university managers and commentators on higher education. The event was hosted by Paul Woodgates PA higher education (HE) expert, with contributions from Bahram Bekhradnia, the Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and Nick Petford, vice-chancellor of the University of Northampton, as well as Mike Boxall from PA’s HE team.

The discussion ranged widely over the changing nature of student experiences in universities, the impacts of new technologies on those experiences and the outlook for providers in the competitive market for students.

Student experiences

Although the PA survey had shown most university leaders stating their commitments to improving student experiences, the discussion showed that practice was highly variable. HEPI had recently published their own review of students’ experiences, which showed that the amount of contact time varied greatly between different universities. This observation opened a discussion of the distinctions between quantity and quality in students’ contacts with tutors, and whether measures of timetabled contact time were the best way of comparing the quality of learning between universities. There was also a discussion about the need to measure student engagements, and given the growing importance of extra-curricula and working experiences for student employability, it was felt that a more rounded set of metrics was long overdue.

New technologies

Turning to the implications of new technologies such as Moocs (massive open online courses) for student experiences, there was strong agreement that these open great opportunities for more effective and flexible modes of learning that universities should be actively embracing. Among the possibilities discussed were flipped learning models, where course content is delivered online leaving classroom time for discussion and clarifications, and also the use of open-source materials such as Moocs to enable universities to offer specialist and minority interest courses that would otherwise be uneconomic.

Innovators and zombies

The discussion moved on to consider how universities can best differentiate themselves in the competition to offer the most attractive student experiences.One vice-chancellor described the ways that his University has sought to differentiate itself through the incorporation of social enterprise into its courses, with students involved in running services for local communities. Others saw potential for offering students work experiences to deliver university services, either internally or for external client groups. The risks for institutions that do not innovate in response to changing market imperatives, and the prospect of a number of ‘zombie’ universities, were a major worry for the sector.


To share your view on the PA’s survey findings and find out how PA can help your institution tackle the challenges of a changing HE market, please contact us now.

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