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39th out of 41 universities: USyd forced to rejig student experience

A poor showing in a national survey of students has prompted the University to reposition itself in student experience

The University of Sydney (USyd) finalised its student experience strategy last Friday in the wake of declining student experience outcomes in 2018 and following a half-year period of consultation and staff feedback.

The strategy — a university-wide initiative aimed at creating a “meaningful and diverse student life that encourages connections and a sense of belonging” — is expected to have wide-reaching implications for student experiences with education along with their interactions and campus participation until 2022.

The 2018 Student Experience Survey (SES), released last month, examines student outcomes in learner engagement, teaching quality and student support, amongst other things. It found that Australian university students continue to rate their tertiary education experience below students in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Overall educational experience outcomes remained even lower for Indigenous students, students with disabilities, students with lower socio-economic status, and culturally and linguistically diverse students. Students from these backgrounds more frequently reported considering dropping out of their degrees for health, workload, and financial reasons.

The SES, conducted through Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) with government funding, found that USyd undergraduates remained amongst the worst off in the country when it came to perceptions of their entire educational experience. In 2018, USyd was ranked 39th out of 41 universities, far below the national average and the lowest of any Group of Eight university. In 2017, USyd was ranked 38th.

Beyond the realm of education, several “pain points” persist in the current student experience, according to the strategy, including familiar challenges of social isolation, limited access to social sport, ad hoc peer mentoring programs, and the lack of identification with the University community.

Independent student organisations as well as clubs and societies have traditionally been responsible for extra-curricular aspects of student life, a role they have played without significant university oversight or regulation historically.

“Clubs and societies bring together students with shared interests and provide an important means of establishing the routinised forms of proximity in which students can encounter and reencounter one another in identified areas of shared interest,” the strategy reads, before expressing concern over “clique-like groups” which complicate social connections in clubs and societies.

But the norm of independent student clubs and societies looks set to change with the University adopting a more interventionist stance in student life after pressure from consistently low student experience outcomes. The recent incorporation of Sydney University Sport and Fitness (SUSF) will see the University’s faculties play a larger role in its strategic direction and this year’s roll-out of universal ACCESS by the USU was made possible through a $1 million contribution by the University.

“It will clearly be important to work with student organisations to promote a less fragmented, more inclusive and accessible student community, and remove, as far as possible, financial, social and cultural barriers to participation,” the strategy admits.

The strategy highlights two possible solutions: Targeted support for societies that emphasise course interests and include all students, regardless of social and cultural backgrounds, like the Sydney University Business Society, and a restructure of sporting opportunities on campus through an annual inter-school sporting competition.

Faculty societies like Sydney University Law Society (SULS) already receive faculty funding. SULS received $20,163 in faculty funding in 2017, and $9,500 in 2018, according to financials from last year.

The new Student Experience Strategy will be delivered under the leadership of Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education) Pip Pattison.