Since 2005, all publicly funded Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in the United Kingdom (UK) have participated in the National Student Survey (NSS) which measures undergraduate students’ satisfaction with their course. This data, which enters the public domain, along with other evaluative information, is then used by HEIs to enhance their student experience (Kovacs et al., 2010). Despite this focus on the student experience it remains largely unconceptualised in the academic literature (Benckendorff et al., 2009) and this paper will begin to address this gap by drawing on data from university students in England.
While many academic writers contend that definition of the concept is problematic, arguing that the student body is so diverse it can only be thought of in terms of a multiplicity of experiences rather than one student experience (Ainley, 2008), any conceptualisation of the student experience tends to be in terms of a journey “from recruitment to learning, awards, destinations and on to alumnus status” (Middlehurst, 2011, p.35). Indeed, one of the first publications to refer to the student experience in the UK explored the student journey - getting in, being there and moving on (Haselgrove, 1994). It has also been understood to mean engagement in academic and non-academic areas of student life, helping to create a sense of belonging and integration through extra-curricular activities (Burdett and Crossman, 2010) or as a series of interactions between the student and the institution (Temple et al., 2014).
The student experience carries a “heavy burden of political thinking” (Ramsden and Callender, 2014, p.16) associated with the marketisation of Higher Education (HE) and the student as consumer (Cartney, 2013). Indeed, the first published UK reference to the student experience in 1992 exploring the experiences of the 'average' student in HE had a chapter on 'The Student as a Consumer' (Roberts and Higgins, 1992). Moreover, recent European research identified inequalities in the student experience amongst students in England, Italy and Sweden in relation to finance, housing, wellbeing and educational outcomes (Antonucci, 2016). The number of university students in the UK living at home is steadily rising and the traditional, residential experience of students immersing themselves in university life is not as dominant as it once was (Brennan et al., 2010). In England, for example, a greater percentage of students from low/intermediate educational backgrounds live with their parents compared to those from higher educational backgrounds (Antonucci, 2016). Conceptualisations of the student experience as a journey may no longer be relevant if, as Holdsworth observed: “Students’ experiences are also diverging and the concept of a normative ‘student’ experience, as stereotyped by popular portrayals of student life, is becoming less relevant, if it ever was” (2006, p.496).
While this literature usefully provides some conceptualisation of the student experience there is little empirical evidence from students themselves. This paper is intended to produce new thinking in this area drawing on research which aims to consider the development and understanding of the student experience in English HE over the last fifty years. It also considers the relationship between the student experience and university space. Thinking of campus space “as an ongoing developmental process that is understood, made and re-made by those engaged with it” (Lefever 2012, p.127) it explores the relationship between students’ understanding of their experience and how they perceive this relates to their day to day lives as students. While this paper draws on this study of students in English HE it claims a wider significance for students internationally who pay tuition fees (e.g. Australia, United States of America, Spain, France, Italy and the Netherlands).
AINLEY, P., 2008. The varieties of student experience - an open research question and some ways to answer it, Studies in Higher Education, 33(5), pp. 615-624. ANTONUCCI, L., 2016. Student Lives in Crisis: Deepening Inequality in Times of Austerity. University of Bristol: Policy Press. BENCKENDORFF, P., RUHANEN, L. and N. SCOTT, 2009. Deconstructing the Student Experience: A Conceptual Framework, Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Management, 16(1), pp. 84–93. BRENNAN, J., EDMUNDS, R., HOUSTON, M., JARY, D., LEBEAU, Y., OSBORNE, M. and J.T.E. RICHARDSON, 2010. Improving What is Learned at University. An exploration of the social and organisational diversity of university education. London: Routledge. BURDETT, J. and CROSSMAN, J., 2010. Checking the pulse, Journal of International Education in Business, 3(1/2), pp. 53–67. CARTNEY, P., 2013. Researching Pedagogy in a Contested Space, British Journal of Social Work, 45(4), pp.1137-54. CHRISTIE, H., 2007. Higher education and spatial im(mobility): non-traditional students and living at home, Environment and Planning A, 39(10), pp. 2445 – 2463. HASELGROVE, S., ed., 1994. The Student Experience. Buckingham: SRHE/OU Press. KOVACS, S., GRANT, L. and F. HYLAND, 2010. A study of the use of the National Student Survey to enhance the Student Experience in Education Departments. University of Bristol: ESCalate - The Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Education, Graduate School of Education. MIDDLEHURST, R., 2011. Getting to grips with academic standards, quality and the student experience. London: Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. RAMSDEN, P. and C. CALLENDER, 2014. Review of the National Student Survey. Appendix A: Literature Review. London: NatCen. SABRI, D., 2011. What’s wrong with ‘the student experience’? Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 32(5), pp.657-667. TEMPLE, P., CALLENDER, C.; GROVE, L. and KERSH, N., 2014. Managing the student experience in a shifting higher education landscape. York: HEA. THOMAS, K., 2015. Going the extra mile: spaces between rhetoric and experience (0148). SRHE Annual Research Conference, 9-11 December 2015, Newport, Wales.
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