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The latest insights on narrative, storytelling and leadership in higher education.

Narratives and the student experience

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There isn’t a homogenous student experience”, so how do we capture the experiences of our students to enable them to excel?

Shân Wareing makes the argument for finding the patterns – where groups of students harmonise and where they diverge – to uncover how, when and where we can make an empowering difference to students’ lives.

Is ‘the student experience’ a thing?”

Is ‘the student experience’ a thing? More specifically, to what extent is it homogeneous or a multitude of experiences, different for each student even if their degree certificates ultimately bear the name of the same university?

This may sound like a bit of semantic sophistry from a manager with too much time on her hands (don’t I have some proper work to do?). Could the presence or absence of the definite article and a singular/plural distinction really be fundamentally important?

‘The student experience’ is a commonplace phrase in university discourse. It implies a single unified phenomenon shaped by corporate intent and, if not basically the same for all students, then at least with core defining features that can be communicated to prospective students to differentiate one provider from another. In the words of (at least!) one provider:

“small enough to feel warm and friendly, with … personal tutors and additional support services… big enough to provide outstanding extracurricular opportunities, including a host of clubs, sporting activities and community and volunteering groups”.

Campus squirrels and cats all contribute to a distinctive student experience, alongside debating societies, sports, and wellbeing services. These kinds of features support student retention and success, and are undoubtedly hugely valuable. They are also expected to influence students’ answers in the National Student Survey. The NSS heavily influences league tables, which in turn significantly impact recruitment, and in a direct causal relationship, institutional financial sustainability. It’s easy to see why universities would regard the student experience as a ‘thing’, given the pressure of the bottom line.

A university experience…is something we create through our own engagement with it: ‘you get out what you put in’

Yet personal accounts of higher education vary, conflicting with the idea of a homogenous student experience. All around us, on social media, in the newspapers and in novels, are diverse individual stories: happy, funny, alarming, unhappy, destructive or affirming. I’ve just finished reading Sally Rooney’s 2018 award winning Normal People partly set in Trinity College, Dublin, and I am still laughing over Kate Atkinson’s 2001 novel, Emotionally Weird, with its fictionalised University of Dundee tutorials.

A university experience is not something we buy like a Zara dress and then see worn by 10 different people on the way home. It is something we create through our own engagement with it: ‘you get out what you put in’. A university’s service provision may exist as a thing but our experience depends on us, and what we co-create.

If “the student experience” (singular) is a problematic concept, does the alternative have to be as many student experiences as there are students, each one unique?

While undoubtedly in some respects true, this narrative masks the extent to which students have experiences in common with other students who are like them, and distinct from students who are not like them.

We need to challenge how the word ‘student’ is used and what it represents”

We need to challenge how the word ‘student’ is used and what it represents in order to analyse the role of universities in inequalities, such as the gap between the numbers of 1st and 2:1 degrees awarded to BAME students compared to white students or proportions of students from lower socioeconomic groups completing their degrees. When we speak about ‘the student experience’ in the singular, we tacitly ignore the existence and needs of different groups. This enables systematic barriers to higher education to persist, limiting the success of students who don’t fit into our predefined ‘student’ persona. Until we have a clear view of the diversity of students – moving on from that all familiar image on newspaper front pages of capped and gowned, normally white, youngsters – higher education will never stop being harder for people who are also parents and carers, estranged from their families, transgender or in any minority.

I’ve been challenged in the past for referring to ‘the student experience’ (singular). I’ve also been vigorously challenged for referring to students as subgroups (International students, mature students) based on aspects of shared identity. In the words of one commentator responding to a talk I gave on this topic, “Does anyone think of their own identity as “International Student”? Maybe estranged students don’t perceive it as all woe and pity, but a damn blessing, all things considered”.

Thinking about students as groups with common characteristics enables us to see where we can make changes to improve the experience of that group of students.

If students are parents, perhaps timetabling their compulsory sessions to fit within the school day will make success more achievable for them. Training staff to combat student victimisation in classes may not be needed in all classes but it has helped transgender students to feel they belong, and that the university cares about them. Outcomes for estranged students may improve if they are provided with free or subsidised accommodation in vacations so they can stay safe and study. Understanding the nature of micro-aggressions and their impact on BAME students’ success is the first step to creating a more affirming and confidence-building environment where it is easier for them to thrive.

Students are unique, each with their own story to tell, and each will make their own student experience.”

There isn’t a homogenous student experience, however convenient the shorthand of ‘the student experience’ is; students are unique, each with their own story to tell, and each will make their own student experience. But while students’ individuality is irreducible, data reveals trends and patterns which are a consequence of how we organise our provision; the default benefits some students and disadvantages others. In this age of regulation and big data, we have more information than ever about our students, at an individual and institutional level. Some of the most important data is that which enables us to understand ourselves as higher education providers by revealing the systematic barriers some students face to academic success, and by providing clues to dismantling those barriers.


By Professor Shân Wareing

Professor Shân Wareing is Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Northampton, having joined in November 2019. Supporting the Vice-Chancellor in the running of the University, Shân is responsible for leading the University’s Faculty Deans. Shân has a keen interest in English language, literature and linguistics, having started her academic career working in these fields.

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