Conference Summary: Advance HE Surveys 2018

Dr Joe Barton (Representation & Research Coordinator, Newcastle University Students’ Union)

On 9 May, I ventured to Leeds to present at the Surveys 2018 conference, organised by Advance HE (formed from the recent merger of the Higher Education Academy, the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education and the Equality Challenge Unit).

As far as I am aware, I was the only representative of a Students’ Union at the conference, and so this was a unique opportunity to promote NUSU’s work and our partnership with the University.

This year’s Surveys conference explored ‘the potential of insight from surveys, metrics, qualitative research and wider methods of capturing the student voice for driving excellence and enhancement within higher education’.

At NUSU, we have been reflecting on similar themes as we prepare our third Teaching Excellence Awards Report. In recent months, we have consulted with staff at the University about the extent to which our TEAs Reports are useful as enhancement tools and what we might do to improve them. These discussions have in turn focused our attention on the methodological and theoretical challenges inherent in dealing with student-led teaching award nomination data.

With this in mind, I was delighted to have the opportunity to present a paper about the TEAs Reports at Surveys 2018. Taking a chronological approach, I offered an overview of how our reports have evolved since 2015, highlighting both our findings and our responses to the challenges which have emerged from the reports’ dissemination and reception.

In so doing, I suggested that by acknowledging the inherent limitations of the TEAs nomination data and subsequent Reports we can take steps towards thinking more critically and imaginatively about their use as an enhancement driver, be it by initiating a dialogue between student and staff about teaching excellence at the local level and using TEAs Report findings as a springboard for discussion, or feeding specific strands of the nomination data into relevant University projects.

Given this direction of travel, it was reassuring to hear from Kirsty Hughes and Neil Lent at Surveys 2018, who are currently exploring similar ground at the University of Edinburgh by bringing their student-led teaching award data to bear upon NSS, PTES and PRES results and vice versa. NUSU will explore the feasibility of doing something similar for our third TEAs Report.

Following my presentation, one interlocutor suggested that perhaps my paper was skirting around the conclusion that teaching excellence in this context is ultimately a ‘judgement rather than a measurement’. While such a realisation does not necessarily demand that we give up trying to further enhance the rigour of future Reports (and a presentation at Surveys 2018 from Steven Wright of Lancaster University offered some interesting ways forward in this regard) it does neatly encapsulate what distinguishes them from the likes of the TEF, and remind us that any such methodological enhancements ultimately serve the purpose of presenting a clearer snapshot of student conceptions of excellence, rather than a comprehensive measurement of desirable teaching approaches.

Elsewhere at the conference, Elizabeth Shepherd of IFF Research made the case for measuring student engagement as well as student experience in institutional and national research. Elizabeth shared some fascinating examples of case studies, such as the University of Illinois’s ‘Ethnography of the University’ initiative and the University of Sydney’s use of learning analytics to profile students as multifaceted individuals. Elizabeth concluded that, as surveys will continue to dominate UK HE, this presents Universities with the opportunity to innovate at the institutional level through exploring consumer marketing and anthropological methodologies.

Shawn Stephenson-McGall, Student Engagement Manager at the University of Bath, reported on their partnership with The SU Bath in the context of wider University education strategy. Through this partnership, Bath are beginning to view student reps as ‘change champions’ and have secured funding from the University to support an 18 month co-creation project in which paid Student Ambassadors work closely with cohort groups to explore key areas of curriculum transformation (including: a review of the shape of the academic year; inclusive curricula; alternative assessment methods). Shawn also explained how Bath used the PRES additional questions to gauge student opinion on, and thus shape, the development of their new Doctoral College.

In addition to helping us improve the TEAs Reports, then, Surveys 2018 has also provided some examples of good practice in co-creation from which both NUSU and the University can hopefully draw some inspiration.

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