COVID-19 and beyond: understanding student expectations

Professor Roger Lewis, YU Associate

At this time of year prospective students gear up for university. Amidst the uncertainty, 2020 might be no exception despite some of the current thinking. What, in the current climate are students expecting in September? Anecdotal evidence suggests that ‘the student experience’ (i.e. ‘being at uni’) is the first thought of many. It’s always been a moot point as to how far their provider’s responsibility extends into that wider area so let’s focus on specifically educational provision. Last week’s 2020 HEPI/Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey offers some initial insights at a time of the lockdown period.

Universities in England turn for guidance to the regulator – the OfS, whose remit is to represent the interests of students as ‘consumers’. Statements from the OfS have said that provision in COVID-19 times should be ‘broadly equivalent’ to what is normally available. What ‘broad equivalence’ means is of course up for debate: is a video-recorded, online 50-minute lecture the same as learning in person? is it equivalent as an experience? Is it equivalent in terms of learning efficacy?

But to what extent should we leave it to the OfS to pronounce exclusively on student expectations? Or the QAA? Or any other agency or semi-governmental body? Instead, might we need to go to the students themselves to establish their expectations in the specific context of their study?

In what terms might they express these expectations? Hours of contact? Nature of contact (do they value seminars over lectures for example)? Do they want ‘class contact time’, ‘individual contact time’, how much of each? Do they want contact with their teachers via email or Zoom or telephone? At set times or at any time? As for lectures, would they prefer the material to be broken up and re-packaged – if not completely re-designed for the new situation?

These questions all focus on the direct interface with academics. What about the other support students need in order to learn: library resources, careers advice, health and well-being.  Technical support is particularly important at a time when technological robustness and quality are critical, with students away from purpose-built learning centres where such support is easily accessible. Even more problematic: the provision of work-based projects, placements, practical work – critical to successful outcomes in an increasing number of courses. How flexible are students prepared to be about the mode(s) by which such contact and access are provided?

What if student expectations are ‘unrealistic’ – or just cannot be met in current circumstances? A gap between expectation and delivery capability could prove disruptive even disabling. The answer is negotiation – easier if an institution is used to discussing learning and teaching issues and has good relationships with its students at all levels, including the students’ union.

After genuine dialogue, it will be clearer as to what the university should and can provide, what are the priorities – and what students in turn need to do to make this work; an informal contract, which can be shared with all concerned (not just students).  Responsiveness will need to be built in, to check the arrangements work as they should.

Back to the regulator and looking towards the autumn: OfS advice is that students need adequate information about their courses during COVID-19 disruption; providers must ensure students have clarity on what to expect (though this sounds one way – the institution telling the students).  Transparency is needed – and an avoidance of over promising and under delivering. A student, Megan Ball, contributing to Wonk HE offers good advice: ‘Ensure that students are on the same page as you… take them on the whole journey with you; whether that’s a straight road to the “new normal”, or it is one littered with U-turns, road blocks and route changes. They will thank you for your honesty far more than empty promises. ‘What can universities promise about student life in September? Who knows?’

Providers differ in their delivery capacity – and their student bodies’ needs are not identical. In Yorkshire, we have practically every type of HE provider from the smaller and specialist arts and music institutions to big multi-faculty civic, research-based universities. Through coming together to explore common questions about learning and teaching, especially in COVID-19 times, we can be stronger collectively and individually. Yorkshire Universities offers a valuable forum in which to discuss these issues and share good practice.

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