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This academic year I had the opportunity to lead the review collection process for Whatuni, working with our project manager to drive collection of over 38,000 reviews from across UK universities. These reviews are what powers the Whatuni Student Choice Awards. They also have a home on Whatuni.com - our student-first website - allowing prospective students to find the right course and university for them, through unique ‘search and match’ technology, alongside the up-to-date student reviews, crucial for student decision-making.

As we navigate our way through the intricate landscape of higher education, one of our most valuable tools is this feedback from the students themselves. Each year, we collect a huge amount of insight in the annual review collection process, delving into every aspect of university life, from the vibrancy of student life to pathways to future careers. The reviews paint a vivid picture of the evolving landscape of higher education. We keep it simple – we ask students to judge areas of university life on a scale of 1 to 5 and give them the opportunity for detailed commentary.

Unveiling Trends: The Journey of Student Satisfaction

Analysing the data, we uncovered fascinating trends, from the resurgence of certain geographical regions in overall university ratings to the evolving priorities of students across different categories. The landscape is dynamic and ever-changing.

2024 Headline Stats

- Among undergraduates, first year students report the highest satisfaction.

- Postgraduate students rate their experience higher than undergraduates, likely due to preset expectations.

- International students rate their experiences higher than domestic students.

- All regions saw an increase in overall university rating, with the North -East showing the most significant growth.

- Student Union ratings dipped, the only category to do so.

- Student support ratings saw the greatest improvement.

- Facilities remained the top-rated category, reflecting the ongoing investments in facilities since the lifting of student number caps.

- Across all categories, average scores in 2024 surpassed 2022 levels (review collection post covid), with scores consistently rising since 2018, indicating increasing satisfaction levels for students across UK universities.

Spotlight on Student Support

Effective student support is integral to fostering a positive university experience. In today's challenging climate, students face various pressures, such as the rising cost of living to mental health concerns. Since 2022, there has been a gradual increase in student support across all regions, with the North East, North West and Midlands emerging as leaders in providing robust support to students in 2024. Analysis by Mission Groups also revealed these positive trends, with the Russell Group seeing the most significant improvement, albeit still below the market average.

The 2024 review comments also shed light on areas of strength and opportunities for improvement. Positive feedback highlighted aspects such as approachable tutors, personalised guidance, and effective communication. Conversely, challenges included the need for additional support services and improved access and communication, particularly in certain subject areas.

Proactive engagement with student feedback is essential for driving continuous improvement and ensuring high satisfaction ratings. While challenges will continue to persist, universities have demonstrated a willingness to adapt and respond to the evolving needs of students. By prioritising student support and embracing feedback-driven initiatives, institutions can create a supportive environment conducive to academic success and personal well-being. 

Spotlight on Career Prospects

Career support is pivotal for students' professional journeys, and universities' performance in this area reflects their commitment to enhancing employability. The North East stands out in 2024, leading student ratings. Notably, Northern Ireland and West Midlands follow closely, with Wales in the top four. There was an increase in career prospects ratings across all regions in 2022, outside of the South East, which experienced a slight decline, indicating room for improvement.

Analysing career prospects by Mission Group, the Russell Group is still below average, with previous review feedback noting the impact of over-recruitment in the last few years, meaning less access to the support they require. The Million Plus group exhibits notable improvements, leading the scores in 2024. In terms of subjects, Education and Health and Medicine retain high ratings, likely due to clear career paths and placement opportunities whilst at university.

Qualitative review data underscores the importance of industry connections, internships, and career counselling in driving positive ratings. Common issues in lower-scoring areas include poor communication and lack of relevant guidance.

Given the diverse needs of students across subjects, tailored career support is essential. Universities should adapt their approaches to ensure all students receive the necessary skills and connections for success, especially considering the new expectations set by the OfS in 2022, with minimum expectations for the proportion of students who continue on their course, graduate, go on to further study or find a professional job.

Prioritising career support not only benefits students but also enhances university standings in various rankings, e.g. The Complete University Guide league table rankings, where graduate prospect outcomes is a factor taken into account when calculating the rankings.

The role of Student Unions

Student Unions are vital for supporting university communities. With the Student Union category being the only one with a drop in average score, the question is - are student unions representing students effectively?

In the 2024 results, Northern Ireland led in Student Union performance. Notably, the Russell Group universities excelled this year, with the highest average rating across all Mission Groups.

The qualitative review data underscores the importance of events, community engagement and listening, and acting on the student voice. Conversely, poor performance is due to lack of activities, underfunding, poor organisation and management and not taking all student groups into consideration.

In the news recently there has been coverage on the temporary closure of Oxford University Student Union to ensure that they are operating and representing the student body effectively. Should more universities be listening to the student voice and making relevant change to ensure that student unions are representing all students effectively? 

In summary

In a landscape marked by change and uncertainty, one thing remains constant: the invaluable perspective of students. As we reflect on the data and insights gleaned from student reviews, several key takeaways emerge. The commitment to enhancing student support is yielding positive results, but there's no room for complacency. Listening to and acting on student feedback to foster engagement, and adapting to evolving needs are imperative for universities striving to deliver exceptional student experiences. 

Camilla King
Camilla King17 May 2024