A third of uni students were unhappy with their overall experience of tertiary education last year, a national survey has found.
University students across Australia have issued a stinging report card on their overall satisfaction with digitised experiences during COVID-19.
The annual Student Experience Survey (SES), commissioned by the federal government, delivers brickbats and bouquets to the country’s 41 public and private universities.
But with most universities forced to pivot quickly to an online format, the latest SES has more brickbats than bouquets.
The 2020 SES, released this month, has revealed that students’ overall satisfaction with their experience across all universities plummeted 9 percentage points, from 78 per cent in 2019 to 69 per cent last year.
The 2020 score means that only about two-thirds of all students were satisfied with their university experience, with the other third left dissatisfied.
The SES, based on 250,000 responses, captured different aspects of the student experience including skills development, learner engagement, teaching quality, student support and learning resources.
Every university in Australia experienced a decline in student satisfaction.
The sharpest decline was experienced at the University of Melbourne, where only 52 per cent of students considered their experience to be positive, with overall satisfaction levels falling 25 percentage points from the 2019 score of 77 per cent.
Also in Victoria, at Monash University, the overall satisfaction rating fell from 78 per cent in 2019 to just 60 per cent in 2020.
Western Australia’s universities were not immune.
The University of Western Australia’s satisfaction score fell 12 percentage points: down to 68 per cent in 2020 compared to 80 per cent in 2019.
Edith Cowan University lost 2 percentage points for an overall satisfaction score of 81 per cent.
The poor report cards for universities were a nationwide occurrence and in no small way affected by the pandemic.
But the latest SES also delivers a strong message that our institutions of higher learning, in an emerging era of the smart university, must double down to take virtual learning to the next level.
This process is under way.
Drilling down on the various measurable aspects of overall student experience contained in the SES provides a clue as to where governing bodies, vice-chancellors and universities executives should direct their efforts.
Unsurprisingly, the aspect of student experience that dragged the virtual experience down the most was ‘learning engagement’.
According to the SES, learning engagement is a measure of how well students felt prepared for study, whether they had a sense of belonging to their university, and the extent to which students participated in discussions online or in a face-to-face mode.
Learning engagement is said to also measure the magnitude of students’ interaction with their peers outside regular study requirements.
The message for university leaders is that one way to improve our virtual experiences is to provide students with better opportunities to engage.
However, student engagement was not the only element of student satisfaction badly bruised by the rapid shift to online learning.
‘Learning resources’ also took a battering. This area is said to measure items such as the quality of online learning materials, access to computing-IT resources, as well as the standard of assigned books, notes and resources.
It also refers to access to laboratory or studio equipment, library resources and other facilities.
With restricted access to a range of learning resources in an online setting, the challenge for universities is to consider how a virtual experience can provide resources equivalent to those available through face-to-face learning.
The 2020 SES demonstrates to university heads that institutions must bolster the digital experience by providing students with greater opportunities to engage with others alongside providing quality learning resources.
While it remains unclear whether a virtual experience will ever achieve the same satisfaction levels as face-to-face learning, some things are very clear.
Students want their universities to do a better job at digitising their offerings; and providing a quality online experience requires significant resources and investment.
At a time when staff numbers in our institutions are being cut, freeing-up the resources to enhance the digital experience at university will continue to be a major challenge.
• Professor Gary Martin is chief executive officer of the Australian Institute of Management WA