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May / June 2012 Issue
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Opinion piece: Dr Anthony Potts, School of Education

 Professions Feature

What students want from their universities

Sixteen years ago, the editor of the Times Higher Education Supplement warned against "channelling first generation university students into educational ghettos instead of providing high quality and diversified options". He also noted that there was an "almost total lack of international data on students' lives".

Since those statements were made, I have undertaken research with students in Australia, America and South Africa about their expectations and experiences of university life.

The findings show that a student's background plays a very influential part in how they fare at university. Their motivations, attitudes to study and learning are formed in childhood and at school, and remain at university. Universities need to understand this and work with what students bring with them.

Enrolment at university can be linked to a desire to escape from childhood circumstances and surroundings. This entails a desire for self-improvement and to escape from less than congenial family situations.

Consequently, universities need to ensure that they maximise students' chances of success if they accept them, or have well developed mechanisms to assist students to withdraw and explore other options. Dropping out may not only be an admission of academic failure, but can also mean a return to situations and circumstances that individuals long to escape from. Dropping out without proper support can be traumatic.

Selecting a university involves a combination of factors. These include reputation of the degree course; size of the university; the size of the city the university is located in; the physical climate of the city; an anticipated easier transition to university life; political and social factors; and sheer chance.

Flexible open entry policies and helpful, friendly academic and administrative staff are all important to students enrolling and their subsequent chances of successful study.

Students are not especially hard to please with respect to their demands.

My research reveals that university study is perceived as rewarding and fulfilling. The students appreciate attractive physical campuses. University teaching and learning environments are generally seen as supportive. However, changes in staffing and resources usually lead to deterioration in student satisfaction. Staff are busier, harder to find and consult. Lecture and tutorial class sizes are also becoming larger.

That aside, it seems possible from these students' comments to achieve relatively high levels of satisfaction with university education without massive levels of student support.

It is all a relative matter and bound up with individual perspectives and prior expectations.

If nothing else, students find change difficult to cope with. Hence, universities need to explain fully and the reasons for any changes.

My research suggests that it is possible for universities to create powerful learning environments without necessarily lavish capital and physical outlays.

The institutions involved in my past research were relatively new and in a fairly good state of physical repair. That said, they were not generously equipped and funded.

However, the question remains as to the minimum level of physical and capital resources that must be provided for an effective learning environment to occur. What is the level below which resources must not be allowed to fall and what is the relationship between resources and educational achievement?

Anthony Potts works in the School of Education at the University of Adelaide. He has previously been at Wolfson College, Cambridge University, Newman University College (Birmingham) and Liverpool Hope University. His research interests include university student cultures, politicians' perspectives on universities, life in new universities, and academic careers.

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Dr Anthony Potts

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