Listening to the student voice at a time of change

Where the leadership role is held by a group, rather than an individual, a clear framework for evidence-based decision making will assist in achieving consensus and outcomes that can be communicated with clarity.

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In this briefing note within the suite of resources addressing the ‘student perspective on distinctiveness’, we examine one university’s approach to student engagement during the undergraduate fee setting period of 2011. There are several aspects of relevance to distinctiveness within this example. This is about:

  • Engaging students so that you make informed decisions, but also so that you act in a way that keeps your students with you

  • Understanding how your institution is perceived and valued by this key audience

  • Taking opportunities to exemplify and reinforce your distinctiveness

Demonstrations on the streets of London in November 2010, preceding the Parliamentary vote to raise the cap on undergraduate fees to £9000 from autumn 2012, left no room for doubt about the strength of feeling among some students against this change.  Once the political decision had been made though, universities in England were faced with tough choices about the level of fee to charge and the package of student support that they should offer to their undergraduates.  

The example: Oxford Brookes University

At Oxford Brookes, the Senior Management Team led the discussions that would help the Board of Governors reach a decision on the University’s undergraduate fee policy.  Janet Beer, Oxford Brookes’ Vice-Chancellor, explains how they approached this duty:

“We took the view that these decisions were highly significant, and had to take into account the financial position of the University, but also that of potential students.  We wanted to ensure that finance was not a barrier to those who chose to study and it was also inevitable that the package of fees and support we offered would send out clear signals about the way that we saw Brookes and wanted it to be perceived.  Over a third of our annual income currently comes from fees for Home/EU undergraduates, so we couldn’t afford to make the wrong choices; if Brookes appeared too expensive compared to other universities, we would risk discouraging the most able applicants and potentially under-recruiting.  On the other hand, if we set our fees too low, some of our courses could become financially unsustainable.”

In 2010-11, the Students’ Union President at Brookes was Lucie Acraman; she was ex officio one of the University’s Governors and saw it as vital to ensure that the voice of Brookes students was heard from the earliest stages of the local planning for 2012 so that decisions would be informed by actual, rather than perceived, student opinions.  The Chair of Governors and the Vice-Chancellor were also keen to include this perspective in the University’s deliberations on fees and bursaries, rather than simply relying on the limited research there was nationally about price sensitivities.

The Students’ Union research

To gather information, during early 2011 the Students’ Union conducted research among current undergraduates.  This was designed to explore three themes:

  • expectations students had at that time of their courses and university experience and how these could be expected to change with significantly increased fees

  • how students felt any increased fees should be structured

  • what impacts any increased fees might have on students receiving financial aid

The Students’ Union was keen to hear the views of as wide a group of students as possible and so it consulted through a range of methods: surveys; face-to-face interviews; focus groups; and road shows.  As Lucie Acraman explains:

“We didn’t just ask students ‘would you like to pay more for your degree?’.  We asked more searching questions about what quality and value meant to them, how they perceived Brookes – asking questions like ‘What does value for money at University mean to you?’ and ‘If you were paying up to three times more for your tuition, what differences would you expect to see?’”

Working with the findings

As a result of this process, when it came to deciding about fees, bursaries and other support for Home/EU undergraduates from 2012, Brookes’ Governors had three  sources of information to consider: detailed financial modelling (from the finance office); competitor analysis (from the planning team); and information on the perceptions and expectations of the University’s own students.  Key points that came out of the Students’ Union research about what would be expected if fees increased were:

  • the quality of the educational experience should rise, with more and higher quality contact time

  • the working environment should be improved, with services provided by the University operating more smoothly – students would be less inclined to put up with things that were not quite right

  • the amount paid in fees should cover everything, with no extra costs for course materials, trips etc – this transparency would help with budgeting and also offer a more ‘bespoke’ and convenient service

After considering all the financial, market and research evidence, Brookes’ Governors decided to charge the maximum £9000 fee for all its on-campus courses from 2012.  With 81 HEIs out of the 149 who have Access Agreements for 2012 setting their fees at £9000 for at least some of their undergraduate courses, on fee alone, Brookes could not be said to have made a decision that reinforced its distinctiveness.  However, the package of support and programme of enhancements that it has developed to accompany this do reflect the University’s commitment to a high quality student experience and strong academic support.  These include measures designed to support individual students, such as:

  • means-tested bursaries of up to £2000 for those with household income of up to £30,000, paid in three termly instalments, with the largest (50%) in the final term, to assist with costs over the summer vacation

  • fee waivers of between £1000 and £2500 a year, on a means-tested basis for those with household incomes of up to £40,000

  • other bursaries – for students from local partner schools and colleges and for care-leavers

  • free bus passes for students 

And measures planned to enhance the student experience more generally:

  • improvements to the IT infrastructure, which had been becoming outdated

  • increased library opening hours

  • major physical improvements on campus

  • reduced student numbers on campus (to reduce demand on space and services and improve student-staff ratios) with additional places offered via partner colleges

According to Strategic and Business Planning Director Roger Grew, the fees strategy was informed at least in part by the evidence that was provided from the Students’ Union research:

“The ultimate fees strategy that the Governors signed off is very Brookes-specific; in particular our decision to reduce student numbers on campus.  The information that we got back from the Students’ Union enabled us to put together a strategy which included some of the views that the students expressed.  In particular, they told us that, in order to justify a higher fee level, the University would have to show some movement in terms of contact time, student-staff ratios and the kind of facilities that they might experience.”

In reviewing its undergraduate fees and student support for 2012, Oxford Brookes was thus in a position to plan with some confidence and ensure that a key strategic decision that was inevitably going to be made in the public eye could be used to support and demonstrate the broader principles and distinctive position that it has in its local community and nationally.

Summary lessons:

  • Evidence gathered through targeted research among key stakeholders is important at times of major change

  • Data on competitor institutions is an important consideration

  • Where the leadership role is held by a group, rather than an individual, a clear framework for evidence-based decision making will assist in achieving consensus and outcomes that can be communicated with clarity

Topics: Guiding your internal decisions.