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Shaping higher education policy with survey data

29 Apr 2019 | RACHEL HEWITT Rachel Hewitt, keynote speaker at the Advance HE Surveys and Insights Conference 2019, presents the perspectives of students on value for money and university bailouts.

Rachel Hewitt, keynote speaker at the Advance HE Surveys and Insights Conference 2019, presents the perspectives of students on value for money and university bailouts. Rachel joined HEPI in November 2018, as Director of Policy and Advocacy. Prior to joining HEPI, Rachel held a number of roles at the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), focused on data policy and governance and gathering requirements for information that could be met from HESA data.


The world of higher education is ever changing, never more so than recently. We’re now onto the fourth higher education and science minister within four years. Given this political turbulence, it is more essential than ever that we have a strong evidence base to set policy. One important way to gather this evidence is using surveys to ask students about their experience and views directly, something we have been doing at HEPI in various forms for over a decade. 

Student’s academic experience

With Government placing emphasis on the teaching within universities through initiatives such as the Teaching Excellence Framework, it is important to understand how students experience teaching and learning at university. The HEPI/AdvanceHE Student Academic Experience survey, has been running since 2006 and has surveyed over 14,000 students across all years of study. 

The results generally show a positive picture. Students contact hours have remained static since the survey began, despite the removal of the student number cap in recent years. If students could start over, the majority wouldn’t change their university or course. Students perceptions of value for money remain low and spent a number of years in decline but have recently began to improve. If policy makers are looking to make changes to the current system, they would benefit from understanding this data on what the current experience is like for a student. 


University bailouts

It is equally important to have data available on emerging policy issues. One example of this is our recent surveying of students on their views of the financial health of universities. There have been continual media headlines about the state of universities finances and the Office for Students have set out their firm position that they would not step in if a university were to fail. However, no one had asked students what they thought understood about the issue, or what they thought should happen. Our surveying showed that students expectations were that government should step in and almost no students thought no action should be taken. It also showed it to be an issue that students were largely unaware of. This demonstrates a critical example of where without surveying of students, we would not have the evidence to show the divergence between government policy and the views of students.


Without surveys, those of us working in higher education policy risk jumping to conclusions about students’ views, and what their experience is like. It is essential that we use surveys to continue to ask students to reflect on their higher education experience and the latest policy issues, to inform the way that we understand and influence higher education today. 

What does the latest HEPI research tell us about the student experience? Hear more from Rachel at the Advance HE Surveys Conference 2019


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