Is student choice an illusion?
Living up to the promises in your prospectus.
In today’s academia, students are often courted by universities with the promise of having plenty of choice and flexibility within their educational environment. To a young student this sounds great: in addition to their compulsory modules, they’ll be offered a wide choice of faculty modules — and often a choice of other interesting modules from across the university. Within a prospectus it all sounds straightforward …right?
Well, as with most things in life, the reality is a little more complex. Our old friend the curriculum timetable invariably has the final say in terms of what can or cannot be delivered and quite often students are actually not always able to enrol in all of the modules that they were originally interested in. Now, admittedly this statement does require some scientific rigour in terms of quantifying the exact scale of the issue, but for now let’s just go with our experience of spending many years observing and discussing institutional timetabling.
So, how then can universities make good on the promises of their marketing? How can they deliver genuinely flexible choices to students, while still maintaining flexibility for staff and good usage of space? This is a question that has been vexing the higher education sector for quite some time. In attempting to provide an answer, there are many issues that require consideration. For a start, what is actually meant by choice and flexibility?
Choice and flexibility for staff is not measured by any accepted metric and is often realised to a larger or lesser extent by allowing staff to say when they are available to deliver teaching. This can be informed by factors such as the need for focused research time, scheduling of timetabled teaching activities, established regular meetings, contractual agreements and childcare and outside responsibilities. How (and if) this information is collected and used within the timetabling process can vary significantly across the sector and even within universities. Clearly, there is a need for a standard definition of flexibility for staff and the creation of a metric that can be used in relation to creating choice for students.
This, then, leaves the concept of choice itself. How can this be measured and how is it linked to overall student experience? Well, various approaches can be taken: you could look at a university’s current timetable in terms of the academic rules which govern the curriculum delivery and ascertain from the existing timetable how much choice actually exists within the timetable structure. You could ask students to comment on what they would ideally like to study and measure what is subsequently delivered through the timetable. Once again, universities would benefit from a clear metric of how to measure choice, which could then be used to inform students, target improvements to the overall timetable and, indeed, make meaningful comparisons across the sector.
Clearly the time has come to take the issue of student choice seriously and provide a framework within which this can be provided for, measured and delivered across the sector. As the customer wants more from the curriculum offering in terms of delivery and choice, the timetable finds itself at the centre of things once again! Now the timetable and the incumbent providers of have always been at the centre of things in terms of operational and strategic issues. The issue of choice brings new pressures in terms of delivering against a key metric that almost certainly will play a dominant role within the ongoing and developing debates around student experience and student engagement.
Part of the service EventMAP can provide for universities is a tailored package which can establish and measure identified key metrics relating to student choice, staff flexibility and space usage, which we then balance against one another through a process of scenario modelling and visualisation to present a tangible overview of where your university is now and where it could be.
So is student choice really an illusion? Well, not entirely. But we do have the tools at our disposal to make the availability of genuine choices for students a practical reality — if you choose to implement them.