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Student engagement

At Bradford, we view the student experience as incorporating four key areas: 

  • The academic experience
  • The social experience
  • The co and extra-curricular experience
  • Welfare and support matters

Student engagement therefore, aims to encourage and enable involvement in these areas.  It should be considered at all stages and transitions of the student lifecycle and journey, from pre-arrival, through early transition and induction into university, to progressions and transitions between levels and beyond study.  Similarly, it is important at all levels of the institution and for all staff, and aims to consider all students and the wider community.

We therefore define student engagement as: a combination of involvement in the academic and social aspects of higher education level studies.  This includes participation in extra and co-curricular activities and access to student and welfare support.  We aim to ensure that the institution hears and responds to the views and thoughts of our students and overall, we strive to work in partnership with our students to understand, support and enhance the student experience.

We strive to encourage all students to be as engaged as possible in their studies and wider university experience and to make the most of their time at university.  As well as regular activity related to the programme of study, there will be various extra-curricular and other opportunities on offer for students.  These could include societies, sports, peer support schemes and various employability opportunities.

Alongside such activities students can also get involved by sharing their views and ideas.  The student voice is essential to our development and therefore whilst studying here, there are a range of mechanisms through which students can tell us about how they are finding their time at Bradford.  Both collective and individual feedback is important to us and students can engage in dialogue with staff and other students, underpinned by a shared approach of open-ness and mutual respect.  Obtaining and utilising our students’ voices allows us to make positive changes based on what our students think.  It also enables students to play a key role in shaping and enhancing the University of Bradford student experience – for both current and future students.

Background

During the last 20 years, higher education has undergone radical and unprecedented change (Education Act, 1992; Dearing Report, 1997; Roberts Report, 2003; Leitch Report, 2006). Increased student numbers have placed exceptional strain on a system not designed to deliver mass education (Rowley, 2003). Scott (1995) calls this radical change 'massification'. Today's learners enter with very different expectations and assumptions about their experience compared with previous cohorts. These expectations vary dramatically from cohort to cohort and also between cohorts. As their University experience progresses, these expectations change again making it difficult to make generalisations about the 'student experience'. The terminology in this area has therefore seen a shift recently to talking about student experiences in an attempt to recognise the diversity institutions face from increasingly discerning students.

The student body has become dramatically more heterogeneous (Toman et al, 2005) with Universities needing to adapt quickly to ensure inclusive provision. The student body has fragmented, (Caldwell et al, 2006) leading in some cases to disengagement. Reasons for this are varied, but include issues of alienation (Quinn et al, 2005) and poor decision-making (STAR, 2006; Yorke, 1997). To assist students effectively, new strategies must be implemented to ensure effective transition.

These drivers have forced universities to become more strategic about how they enhance the student experience and manage student engagement. The introduction of fees has created an interesting tension for institutions who have seen their students become more demanding and forced a more customer orientated shift towards services. Bradford has been identified as a 'small research informed University that has some research excellence, some good recruiting courses but struggles in some areas for recruitment' (Academic Strategy Paper, LTC66/08-09).

In order to understand more about the student experience, nationally co-ordinated work has been undertaken through the National Student Survey (NSS). The NSS provides the sector with a major source of information on students' perceptions of their higher education experiences. The NSS is the biggest survey work we undertake at Bradford. However we also research into the whole student experience through other key surveys for undergraduates and postgraduates. This research compliments other measures into student satisfaction such as module evaluation questionnaires and service evaluations; as well as key mechanisms such as student representation and other opportunities to listen to the student voice.

Student engagement has been identified as something desirable (Farmer-Dougan, 2007), but there is little consensus within the higher education sector about how it can be defined. A number of studies have shown that student engagement overlaps with, but is not the same as, student motivation (Sharan et al, 1999). At Bradford this aspect is particularly interesting, as a significant number of our locally based students show extrinsic but not necessarily intrinsic motivation for being at University.

'Student engagement' typically refers to understanding how engaged a student is with their higher education experience. Are they regularly attending lectures and seminars? Are they submitting work on time and progressing as expected through their course?

However, student engagement can also be defined more broadly to include how involved the student is within the wider University community. Have they made friends? Do they participate in social activities? Have they got involved in a club or society?

A third definition focuses on involvement of students within the business of the University - hearing the 'student voice'. Much work has been done on this nationally in recent years with HEFCE publishing a paper looking at student engagement in this context in February 2009. HEPI (2009) have also commissioned work in this area.

Bradford have defined student engagement as a combination of all of the above i.e. involvement in the academic and social aspects of higher education level studies and ensuring the institution addresses ways of including the student voice. This definition ties in with work on student retention (Tinto, 1993; Longden and Yorke, 2007) where emphasis is placed on helping students to engage with academic and social activities.

Bradford has also participated in a number of externally funded research projects which focus on student doubters and good retention and transition practices.

To ensure that we are able to articulate our work in this area effectively, we have used the recently published Chapter on Student Engagement from the QAA to structure our strategic plan. For staff and students at the university you can access our plans and see a recent (2012) presentation on work in this area from the Learning and Teaching forum resources on the ADU website.