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Student Experience Should be a Priority

Words by Tom Hall

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily refl ect
those of Lot’s Wife or the MSA.

 

If the well spoken and politically polished Minister for Education, Jason Clare, wants to tackle University reform in ways that will make a difference to the lives of students today, and into the future, the student experience should be one of his top priorities. As a first year university undergraduate student in 2023, there are many aspects of my tertiary education that are strikingly disappointing. My generation was raised by a generation that speaks of university as the time of their lives and a period during which they made the best of friends; friends for life. The collegiate and community-centric picture they paint is fading, and fading quickly. Were you to ask any adult who grew up in the Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and Keating era how they thought and think of their university experience, their response is likely to be the chalk to the cheese of the modern academic aspirant.

 

Most ordinary Australians would be forgiven for thinking that Australian Universities are the place to be. Recent QS rankings tell us that three of our nation’s leading universities jumped to the list of the world’s top twenty universities. In Victoria, we are home to the nation’s leading university (Unimelb), and the nation’s largest university (Monash), which broke into the top fifty in the world. 

 

So what’s the problem? 

 

What is misleading to most is that this data is based purely on research outcomes by the university. The quality of undergraduate teaching, student experience, and social environment of the university does not play any role in determining this ranking. Further to this, employability and job-ready skills are also not considered in the QS rankings. This is problematic for a whole host of reasons. 

 

The recent Student Experience Survey (SES) results for 2022, which were released in the same week as the QS rankings, present a vastly different perspective to the QS rankings. Among the key findings of this survey, were the revelations that only 25% of all undergraduate students feel positively about their tertiary education and that only 46% feel a sense of belonging to their institution. Overall satisfaction has decreased from 79.9% to 75.9% from 2015 – 2023, and prior to 2015 the satisfaction ranking was in the 80s. The most paradoxical finding of this survey, when contrasted to the global rankings, is that the leading research universities in Victoria, the University of Melbourne and Monash University, are home to the least satisfied students in the state. Students of the University of Melbourne, Australia’s highest ranking and wealthiest university, rank it last out of 139 higher education institutions on the quality of their student experience. It should not be the case that global rankings become the enemy of collegiate tertiary study, but under the current model, this is the reality. 

 

With the RBA warning that one of the largest problems facing the future of the Australian economy is productivity, it seems logical that Minister Clare should be looking to inspire younger generations to work hard and to enjoy the experience of working towards an attainable goal. If our nation’s leading universities are failing to offer students a rewarding and collegiate tertiary education experience, then our current circumstance seems a congruent consequence. This productivity issue could quite easily be solved, not only by upskilling the workforce and getting more people to university (one of the Minister’s key priorities), but by providing students with an academic experience that is socially and culturally rewarding as well as intellectually. 

 

I consider myself to be having a good experience at university, and, being a respondent to the SES for this year, hope to see the satisfaction rankings improve across the country. I am fortunate, but I see and chat with many people on a daily basis that feel the exact opposite. It would be very easy for one to be disengaged from university, as there is little to no semblance of cohesion and collective identity. I don’t, and am unlikely to, feel a strong sense of belonging to my university. When I talk to other students, this sentiment is not uncommon. There seems to be a growing sense of complacency amongst university leaders and education departments when it comes to university satisfaction, and it will be to our detriment. Government departments and ministers are turning a blind eye to lecturers and teachers, who are crying out, and in many cases going on strike for better, fairer pay. At the time of writing, the University of Melbourne Arts Faculty is currently on strike. Put simply, professors in the modern world are overworked and underpaid, and the educational experience of an entire generation is being put in jeopardy as a result. 

The pandemic plays a part here too. COVID-19 is the zeitgeist of my generation and we are the guinea pigs for this new style of education. When I observe my fellow undergraduate students, and speak to students in years 10, 11 or 12, it is clear that the online learning experiment is failing. The consequences of the pandemic will undoubtedly be a mantle that is carried by my generation. It is in the interest of the longevity of the nation for us to limit the damage and stem this rising wave of disinterested and disengaged students. We are already destined to become a lost and wayward generation due to the psychological and social impacts of the pandemic, it would be a missed opportunity for Clare if we allow my generation to miss out on the social connections for which university is famed, in the name of convenience and a cost effective pursuit of research based rankings. 

What can be done? 

Whilst we can boast about our nation’s universities, we will never be able to produce the calibre of alumni that graduate from the likes of the Ivy leagues and Oxbridge until our experience surveys produce similar results. Connections, socialising and teacher-student relationships lie at the crux of a satisfactory university experience. 

It is not an entirely bleak outlook. Some Australian universities are getting it right. Success stories from the SES include the University of Divinity with a satisfaction ranking of 91%, the Australian National University with 80%, and Bond University at around 85%. These institutions tout the quality of their staff, quality of teaching, and an emphasis on social engagement as the reasons for this success. 

 

But how can this model be rolled out and enforced nation-wide? There are many suggestions circulating. 

 

In an opinion piece in July this year, former education minister Alan Tudge called for a university ombudsman, which would have the power to force institutions to refund HELP loans if students are provided with substandard teaching practices. The price of tertiary education has more than doubled over the past two decades. Cost, and the threat of a large HELP loan can also influence the experience of undergraduate students, so University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor, Duncan Maskell calling for first degrees to be free once again is another consideration for Minister Clare. With a budget in surplus, this is worth considering as a means of solving the looming productivity cliff edge towards which our nation is uncontrollably hurdling. 

 

Something could and should be done to incentivise universities to prioritise student experience. The federal government should look at ways to incentivise professors to improve subjects and the quality of their classes and discourage a myopic focus on research. It was encouraging to see Minister Clare speak passionately about his vision for Australian universities when releasing the Australian Universities Accord Interim Report at the National Press Club in July this year, but the issue of student satisfaction was a glaring omission in his speech. 

 

Admittedly, I am still a largely uneducated first year student, and can only speak from limited experience. Even still, my despondence only grows when I read the results of the SES, and see little to no change or attention being raised in the media. The best way to ensure the prosperity of our future, my generation’s future, is to invest in the young. 

Tom Hall

The author Tom Hall

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