Distinction and Diversity in Higher Education

Meeting the information needs of prospective students


When students decide whether to go to higher education and where to study there are a number of key decision-making points and sources of information.

HEFCE and the other UK funding bodies have been reviewing the information needs of prospective students, both what information these students want but also where there go to find it. This review was informed by a consultation on public information (the summary of the consultation results of which were published in August), as well as yesterday’s release (28th Sept) of the revised version of the National Student Survey for 2017.

Enhancing the National Student Survey

Whilst the data from the National Student Survey will form part of the information that will inform the judgements of the Teaching Excellence Framework it is important to remember that this is not why the National Student Survey was introduced.

As we get closer to launching this year’s Survey institutions will need to highlight the beneficial impact of the survey and how students’ education has improved as a result of the NSS to prevent potential disrupting activity. The NSS has proved to be an important tool that helps inform the choices of prospective students and drive enhancement of education across higher education.

This enhancement role is important with institutions and departments using the data to identify areas to focus on through the action plans that result from the annual results. There will now be 27 questions, with about a third remaining unchanged, a third amended, and the final third being new questions; providing both opportunities to maintain benchmarking and exploring new areas.

As with any dataset that remains largely unchanged for 10 years the addition of new questions will provide extra information in new areas for institutions to focus on, and the addition of questions relating to student engagement (through the ‘learning community’ and ‘learning opportunities’ sections) and student voice are particularly to be welcomed.

These new questions around engagement with students own learning will provide exciting new data that will enable institutions to have more detailed conversations with students about their learning experience. This focus on better engaging students in their education will also be key to challenge concerns about a rise in students exhibiting consumer-traits.

The survey also retains the students’ union question, although tweaking the wording to shift the emphasis onto the role of students’ unions representing their academic interests. Whilst there are some challenges for institutions with smaller, less developed unions this focus on the academic experience may provide renewed focus on student representation and engagement systems (see the recent GuildHE report on student engagement for more information). The students’ union question – now question 26 – is also going to be supported by the addition of a new students’ union section in the optional bank of questions to give institutions and students’ unions the opportunity to explore this further.

Institutional information

In addition to the changes to the National Student Survey there are also other reforms to public information. There are a plethora of sources of information out there for prospective students which can create difficulties for prospective students (and their parents) to navigate their way through it all. This can be especially true of those students from families and schools without much experience of higher education, and those without access to wider advice and guidance.

The UK funding councils have been considering the public information landscape and last month published the summary of responses to their consultation. Amongst other things it proposed maintaining and improving the Unistats site but also to develop guidance on the course information to be provided through institutions’ own websites from 2017.

There is an information-needs journey that the prospective student will go on, from deciding if going to higher education is the best choice for them, narrowing down the course and institutions to finally making a decision about which institution to study at.

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The further the student moves along the arrow the more likely they are to move from information provided at the national level – such as UCAS, KIS/Unistats, league tables etc – to wanting specific information about the course content and experience in a particular institution, information which is best located on an institution’s own website. The above diagram is an initial attempt to map the different types of information required and different sources at different stages in the information journey.

The UK funding councils are developing good practice guidance for institutions on the information needs of students, and GuildHE and others (including the CMA) are helping provide advice on this, particularly about how to provide guidance that is useful to the full diversity of the higher education sector and the different needs of prospective students. As information moves from the national level to institutions’ own websites it will be important to ensure that similar types of information will be provided as well as ensuring the comparability of the information.

It is also important to remember that whilst this focus on good information is hugely beneficial to prospective students, but however good the information its only one part of the IAG support for prospective students. Advice and guidance should also play an integral role to student decision-making and enhancing this shouldn’t be forgotten.

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