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Introduction and aim
This briefing note reviews the responsibilities of governors to a key group of stakeholders: students. The role governors have in reviewing institutional plans and the attention given to students, the results of the national student survey, student destinations, the operations of students’ unions and the student complaint processes are all considered.
The importance of students
Teaching is a core function of higher education, and for many institutions their largest area of activity. As funding is tied to the student (either indirectly through public grant funding to the institution or by the direct payment of tuition fees by students) recruiting and retaining students is of high importance. The imperative on institutions to recruit students has seen increasing attention being given to marketing, investment in teaching and learning facilities (eg new buildings), student accommodation and other facilities (eg IT infrastructure).
For institutions with a strong research ethos and culture, a concern sometimes expressed is that students have not always been seen as the highest priority.
Governors have significant responsibilities in connection with students, including:
Students and institutional plans
The institution’s strategic plan should give sufficient attention to key areas of student matters, including student recruitment, student satisfaction and the student experience. Institutional aims and plans for specific areas may be detailed in sub-strategies, including the institution’s academic or teaching and learning strategy.
Key performance indicators
Key performance indicators (KPIs) allow governors to monitor student related outcomes contained in the institution’s strategic plan. KPIs may cover the number of student applications received; student recruitment by level and mode of study; student progression rates; student satisfaction; and student destinations.
Where KPIs show weak performance against planned outcomes, governors should be prepare to question the executive and expect corrective action to be taken.
Information for potential students
Changes affecting, in particular, the English higher education system have led to increased competition between providers and students increasingly viewed as consumers. Although the idea of a student asconsumer rather than a co-producer of higher education is contentious, institutions are now expected to provide more detailed information to help students make better-informed choices.
Institutions in England are expected to make available data relating to the institution (wider information set), as well as course level information (key information set - KIS). The data is placed on the institution’s website, and on the Unistats1 website, which provides a central repository of data for all public higher education providers.
Information about provision forms Part C of the Quality Code and the expectation is:
‘Higher education providers produce information for their intended audiences about their learning opportunities which is fit for purpose, accessible and trustworthy’.2
The governors’ role in ensuring ‘the provision of honest, accurate and timely information’ is confirmed by the Committee of University Chairs (CUC) and the Higher Education Code of Governance.3
Commentators have questioned the usefulness of the current approach, suggesting that the information does not help users to make better-informed decisions or that gaps in the scope and quality reduce its usefulness.4
The student experience
The ‘student experience’ describes the experience of students studying with the provider. Differences in institutional mission, subject provision, levels and modes of study indicate that the student experience varies between (and often within) institutions.
While the learning experience will be at core of the student experience other elements of provider provision may be important for specific student groups. Full-time undergraduate students may see provision of student accommodation, catering and sport facilities as important; while post-experience students engaged in part-time and flexible study may see these elements of little relevance, and place greater emphasis on the ability to study at a time and place of their choosing.
The students’ union (sometimes called the Guild or Association) contributes to the student experience by offering pastoral care, welfare support and organising social events, clubs and societies. Legally most student unions are private unincorporated organisations and are not part of the higher education institution.5 Many receive a block grant from the institution, approved by the governing body.
Section 22 of the Education Act 1994 (EA94) requires the governing body to take ‘such steps as reasonably practical’ to ensure the union operates ‘in a fair and democratic manner and is accountable for its finances.’ The EA94 also requires that the governing body approve the written constitution for the union (reviewed at least every five years) and a code of practice.6
It is important to consider what students want from their engagement in higher education and consider the extent to which their expectations are met. Two annual surveys of student satisfaction - the student experience survey (SES) and the national student survey (NSS) – are indicators of levels of satisfaction.
Student experience survey
While the SES 2014 showed student satisfaction nationally remained high (86% of respondents being fairly or well satisfied), there was a divergence in responses from those studying in Scotland or England as to value for money. One-in-three students in England expressed the view that their experience represented poor value for money – nearly twice the level recorded before £9,000 fees were introduced.7
National student survey
The NSS is an annual survey administered by Ipsos MORI for all of the UK’s devolved administrations. The survey gathers information on the quality of the student experience from predominantly final year undergraduate students. Students are asked to make judgments about: teaching on my course; assessment and feedback; academic support; organisation and management; learning resources; and personal development. The survey also asks students to rate their overall satisfaction.
NSS data is made available through the Unistats website at institution and course level. Results from the NSS can be used to identify areas where student satisfaction is relatively low (assessment and feedback often falls into this category) and to make course and institutional comparisons. Institutions and their governing body should review the results of the NSS.
Student appeals, complaints and discipline
The number of student appeals and complaints, especially in England, is increasing.8 Institutions need to have processes in place for managing appeals and complaints to meet the requirements of the UK Quality Code, which are ‘fair, accessible and timely, and enable enactment’.9
For providers in Scotland, additional to the QAA code, the Model Complaints Handling Procedure is a required approach to dealing with complaints.10
The governing body will normally be expected to approve the procedures by which student appeals, complaints and disciplinary matters are dealt with, but leave the implementation to senate (or equivalent) and the officers of the institution. The governing body should keep under review the institutional processes and satisfy themselves the procedures meet the external requirements placed on the institution.
Students in England and Wales studying with an institution that is part of the Office of Independent Adjudicator (OIA) Scheme have the right to access the OIA, once the provider’s internal appeals and complaints procedures have been exhausted. In Scotland, the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) has a similar role. Students at Northern Ireland institutions have access to different processes.
The QAA also investigate concerns, raised by students, staff, organisations and the public, about the standards and quality or information about higher education provision under its ‘Concerns Scheme’.
The governing body should annually be informed as to how many students and others have used external review, the outcome of such reviews, and how the number compares with the levels in previous years and peer institutions.
Many students enter higher education to improve their employment prospects. Information on graduate employment and earnings is part of the KIS data. Data on the employment of graduates six months after they have left a course is collected by the Higher Education Statistical Agency (HESA) using the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education survey (DLHE).11 DLHE data is available at course level and allows comparisons between courses and subject areas to be made.
Governors should be aware of the outcomes for their institution and raise questions where the data suggests areas of relative weaknesses or adverse trends.
Questions to consider
End notes and further reading
Associate Director, Governance
Aaron Porter was appointed as Associate Director, Governance at the Leadership Foundation (LF) in January 2014. He is also a higher education consultant and a freelance journalist, having previously been president of the National Union of Students (NUS) in 2010 – 2011. He is also an associate for the LF and the Higher Education Academy (HEA), on the advisory network for the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) and CFE research and consultancy alongside a number of other portfolio roles.
During his high profile term at NUS, he was the first NUS President to be invited as an observer to the board of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) and to address the annual Universities UK Conference in September 2010. In addition he served as a non-executive director on the boards of UCAS, the HEA and Endsleigh Insurance. He also co-chaired the Beer/Porter Student Charter group which reported to Higher Education Minister David Willetts in January 2011, and was a member of the Hefce Online Learning Taskforce and the review of External Examiners chaired by Dame Janet Finch both conducted in 2010/11.
Previous to his term as NUS President, Aaron served two successful terms as NUS Vice-President (Higher Education), helping to build NUS’ reputation with the sector. He also served as a non-executive board member for the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) and on the board of the European Students’ Union (ESU). He was also a member of the Burgess Implementation Steering Group and the National Student Survey Steering Group. In 2009, he was part of the UK delegation to the European higher education ministerial summit in Leuven, Belgium.
Aaron studied BA English at the University of Leicester and graduated in 2006. He then spent two years as a sabbatical and trustee of the students’ union, he was also the founding chair of Unions94 (the students’ unions of the 1994 Group). As a student he was editor of the student newspaper, ‘The Ripple’.
Governance Web Editor
David Williams is Governance Editor for the LF website. He has over 25 years experience of working in higher education, as both as an academic and senior manager. During this time he has worked closely with governing bodies, contributing to, and supporting their work
in a variety of ways.
As Governance Editor, David works with the wider LF community and its members to ensure the governance website offers a repository of information and signposts recent developments in the field on governance.