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14 April 2021

Students’ Questions about Quality and Value in COVID times



Hillary Gyebi-Ababio
Current Vice President for the National Union of Students and QAA Board Member

At a time where the experience of higher education has been so different for many and while ‘quality’ is at the heart of discussion for providers, students and government, it’s more important than ever that students are supported to engage effectively in the quality of their educational experience.

The COVID-19 pandemic has demanded urgent and rapid change to learning, teaching and assessment in higher education and students are wanting to understand and be part of that change. Although in many cases students have worked closely with their institutions to react to the pandemic, many are still looking for a sense of justice and clarity and want to know exactly what they are getting now that their educational experience has changed so much.

The terms ‘value’ and ‘value for money’ are commonplace in the discourse around recognising how the components of the educational experience come together to justify fees and investment of time and effort. For many students and student representatives, the language around value for money has proved problematic. Value for money can be viewed as a cost/benefit analysis, but the value of higher education and a student’s experience are much broader than this. In our current context, the discourse has shifted to framing quality as the concept upon which value is measured in education. However, despite sector agreed definitions of quality and standards, a wider understanding of these among the student population is still needed.

Students are asking:

  • What does quality mean?
  • How is my institution ensuring I am still able to get the full ‘university experience’?
  • How do I hold my institution to account when I don’t receive the quality/experience that I’ve been promised?

Frankly, students are confused. It’s important that, fundamentally, education isn’t viewed as a commodity in its delivery or its purpose. As a result of the pandemic, we are living in a different world and this can make the components upon which we judge quality difficult for students to identify.

What has become clear is that this is an opportunity to richly engage students in matters of quality and, more widely, how their degrees are constructed and awarded. The work of debunking and de-acronymising higher education goes a long way to help build a culture where students no longer feel locked out and unfairly treated by a system they can’t easily understand. There are many lessons we have to learn - as a starting point, transparency, clarity and partnership with students is key. QAA recently published a resource Talking about Quality: Supporting Student Discussions on Quality, Standards and Value for Money, helping to bring UK-wide definitions to life from a student perspective and encouraging informed discussion.

Students rightly evaluate their experience of higher education, as do providers who also monitor and assure the quality of their delivery and the academic standards of their awards. Although institutions have robust mechanisms to uphold quality and standards, there are elements of the student experience beyond the control of a provider - this is why it is important to understand and discuss the roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders in higher education.

While there is a heightened interest around quality assurance and enhancement, providers and the wider sector must enable students to engage in effective conversation, and action, based on a shared understanding of roles, expectations and responsibilities.

To see how QAA is supporting student engagement in standards and quality, staff and students from QAA member institutions can sign up to receive a quarterly newsletter.

Upcoming student engagement resources from QAA include:

  • Student Resources for Education for Sustainable Development
  • Evolving Student Engagement Conference
  • Publication of a practical toolkit to plan and evaluate student engagement practice.