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Cara Skikne, Studyportals

Out of all the dimensions of student experience we measure, students were least satisfied with online learning. There is still a gap between student expectations and the reality in online classrooms
December 22 2021
3 Min Read

Studyportals’ Global Student Satisfaction Awards seek to recognise universities that have achieved the highest student satisfaction, based entirely on reviews from students. This year’s iteration received 108,000+ reviews from students at 4,000 organisations. Cara Skikne told The PIE more.


The PIE: What are the key findings from Studyportals’ GSSA 2021?

Cara Skikne: While student satisfaction did dip during the pandemic, it is a great compliment to the industry that it remained high – at 4.06 out of 5. Student satisfaction actually rose in most categories – for admissions, student-teacher interactions, student diversity, quality of student life, and overall satisfaction. University Covid-crisis management was also rated well – at 4.15 out of 5.

The areas of improvement for universities are in career development which has slipped two percentage points from pre-pandemic levels, and online classroom experience, which was rated only 3.6 out of 5.

“Just over 400 universities had enough reviews for a representative score”

We received over 108,000 reviews across 4,000 organisations in 121 countries. Just over 400 universities had enough reviews for a representative score and to be considered for the recognition program. While we are always looking to boost these numbers, this is still the largest dataset of student experience information in the world.

The PIE: Does student satisfaction continue to be important for institutions to take into consideration? What positive changes have universities made following previous iterations of the GSSA?

CS: For institutions, student satisfaction is a litmus test. Measuring student satisfaction allows them to access issues and respond to student feedback. One of the university winners, Lorenzo Cantoni, from Università della Svizzera italiana, mentioned that he sees students as co-investors co-creating value in their education – and that attitude speaks to the shift in how universities are seeing students at the centre of things.

“For institutions, student satisfaction is a litmus test”

The focus on student experience and student satisfaction has become slightly more mainstream today, compared to when the first Global Student Satisfaction report came out. We are seeing more senior leaders – university presidents and rectors in the higher education space – really engaging with the report, considering best practices on student experience and prioritising the voice of the student in their policy decisions.

At the awards ceremony, we had keynote addresses from a former prime minister of the Netherlands Jan Peter Balkenende, and Fransec Pedro, director of UNESCO’s International Institute for Higher Education. There is high-level support for measuring student satisfaction, as an indicator of quality.

Students now have a satisfaction measure that is really relevant for them. These are student-based measures on aspects like career development and quality of life, to complement academic rankings. This initiative was started by a group of student organisations frustrated at the limitations of academic rankings alone to make decisions. Many of the criteria in academic rankings don’t really affect the student experience directly or are not predictive of a good student experience.

“Students cannot get the full picture with academic rankings alone”

Students cannot get the full picture with academic rankings alone. More student-centred metrics and student reviews allow students to elevate their ability to make good, informed decisions, using the measures that are important to them. For many students, particularly those taking the leap to study abroad, on-the-ground information from their peers is a real lifeline.

It is encouraging to see how many of the reviews are actually pieces of advice from current students who want to make the journey easier for the students who follow. Prospective students can get a good idea of what it’s like to study in a particular university, in a particular country. The Student Satisfaction Awards rewards the universities who are prioritising the satisfaction and engagement of students.

The PIE: Will online experiences eventually be accepted by students? Should institutions be looking to improve the online experience or should they double down on in person experiences?

CS: Most importantly: there is no one-model-fits all. For some, mostly adult learners, a fully online education is the only option. Others only thrive in a traditional campus setting and are looking for personal, social development beyond curriculum and the degree.

Online learning is going to continue to play a significant role so it cannot be ignored. I think students and universities are also realising a lot of courses will include some kind of hybridisation. Out of all the dimensions of student experience we measure, students were least satisfied with online learning.

“There is still a gap between student expectations and the reality in online classrooms”

There is still a gap between student expectations and the reality in online classrooms. In fact, the winner of the Online classroom experience category, The University of Essex online – attributed some of its success to the fact that students had expected to study online. So, student expectations definitely play a role in satisfaction.

Students had very strong opinions on online learning. The good news is that in the over 10,000 reviews we collected, about a third of students gave a score of 5 out of 5. The bad news is that overall, satisfaction with online learning could have been better. Lower scores have dragged down the average.

On the one hand the resources needed to improve online experience are completely different from in-person learning. It is not just about replicating in-person classes. But on the other hand, the same building blocks of student satisfaction are needed – proactive communication, frequent check-ins and additional support. Boosting online student satisfaction does not come at the expense of in-person experience, and vice versa.

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