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13 October 2021

Why ‘going beyond the metrics’ matters even more as we ‘build back better’


Professor Elizabeth Cleaver
(Independent HE Consultant)


Professor Fiona Smart
(Edinburgh Napier University)

It’s been a challenging 18 months globally, not least for those who had committed to studying in higher education as the pandemic took hold. Many students who signed up for face-to-face and practical courses found themselves having to adapt to online learning and modifications to their courses and assessments in ways they could never have imagined. Behind the scenes, staff in higher education providers worked assiduously to ensure that academic standards were maintained and that student experiences were as good as they could be in the constrained circumstances.

In these exceptional times, many of the metrics which providers have hitherto been measured against have been tested to the nth degree, with a marked sector-wide decline in overall satisfaction in the National Student Survey in 2021. The likely impact of the pandemic on future student satisfaction and attainment, and graduate and longitudinal educational outcomes is something that will only become apparent with time.

The importance of belonging and community

What became clear as the various periods in and out of lockdown took effect was that sense of community and belonging - something that we know is of key importance in higher education not least due to its positive relationship to student success and sense of wellbeing - was found to be difficult to build and maintain. This is not to say that online communities cannot be built and fostered; but this has proved to be more difficult when online learning is not part of the original plan or when the course community needed to build the skills of working and learning together online from scratch and at short notice.

Interestingly, sense of community and belonging and the building of effective relationships were two of five key intangible assets that we identified in our 2019 QAA Scotland Enhancement Themes research Beyond the Metrics, which drew on the input of 147 sector stakeholders through workshops in England and Scotland. Other key intangible assets that we encountered during our research included the wellbeing of students and staff and the engagement and participation of students in their own learning.

In a nutshell, we conceptualised intangible assets as things that we know are highly valuable but can be hard to quantify. Things that are often contextually defined and experienced and are not easy to measure directly. If we ignore these, at the expense of the metrics that currently dominate in the sector, we can be in danger of losing sight of some of the things that matter most to us and our students and which form the heartbeat of the higher education we offer.

So how can we begin to understand how to ‘build back better’ in important but intangible areas of higher education; areas that we instinctively know are valuable and are often actively promoted as part of the exceptional living and learning experiences that we offer our students?

Mapping and evaluating our intangible assets

Our first steps can and should be to ‘know’ how these assets become manifest in our institutional settings. To move beyond description, anecdote and student soundbite, we need to understand what assets like ‘sense of belonging’ and ‘community’ look and feel like for us in our local contexts. We can do this by mapping how we show and know that we value them - for example, through the campus and online learning spaces we create, the content of our curricula, the ways we teach and promote students’ learning, the wording of our strategies and policies, the behaviours we model to our students, and the focus of our celebrations. And once we know what they look like, we can start to map their impact and identify any returns on the investments we are making in these important assets.

Resources from the original Beyond the Metrics project were designed to support you in this process - to identify your intangible assets, map the value you place in them, identify whether your resourcing of this asset is appropriately distributed, and to focus any evaluation efforts, to avoid creating a ‘data lake’ of qualitative evidence!

Drawing on our reflections and experiences of working alongside colleagues in the sector in the two years since their original publication, we are planning to update the project web resources over the coming months. But in the meantime, we encourage you come along to QAA’s Moving Beyond the Metrics webinar on 21 October 2021 to find out more about the project, how the resources have been used to-date, our plans for updates/next steps and how we could help you to evidence your intangible, but nevertheless important, assets. We look forward to seeing you there.

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