Student Experience: What is that? Which student? Which experience?

harrietBy Dr Harriet Dunbar-Morris, PFHEA – Dean of Learning and Teaching (University of Portsmouth, UK).

Outside of the higher education sector there is some confusion about ‘Student Experience’; I’m often asked: ‘Student Experience’, what is that; which student; which experience? That part of your job description, does it mean you’re some sort of holiday rep – the ‘Purplecoat’ (Portsmouth’s colour is purple) for making sure that the students at Portsmouth are having a good time (like in the sitcom ‘Hi-de-Hi’!)?

The term student experience is wide-ranging, applying as it does to a variety of different types of student (full-time, part-time, straight from school, mature, international, undergraduate, postgraduate), and meaning different things to each of them as individuals.

One thing we can all agree on in the sector is that an array of different things we provide in our universities affect the student experience, and thereby the quality of students’ learning: quality of teaching; level of academic support; types and modes of teaching; learning space and facilities; opportunities for extra-curricular activities; social space. These are the kinds of things we address in our TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) submissions, and in meeting our regulatory requirements (e.g. the QAA Higher Education Reviews in the UK), and, for a particular group of students, in our Access and Participation Plans.

But this makes the student experience a bit of a tick-box exercise. I believe it distances us from what we are actually doing in our universities – enabling our students to succeed, however they personally perceive success, and facilitating a development process, in which our students mature intellectually, emotionally and personally. We are partners with our students, co-creating their success.

At the University Portsmouth, this is encapsulated in the ‘Hallmarks of the Portsmouth Graduate’ – the set of attributes our students will acquire through their time with us. Other universities will have similar graduate attribute documents. The test is to embed these into our processes, and evaluate and monitor their delivery and achievement, but without divorcing it all from the student experience. This is one of the key responsibilities of my role at Portsmouth. I am sure others have similar responsibilities.

A model that I have found quite useful for getting my colleagues at Portsmouth to think about our students’ student experience through their eyes is the nine qualities model of student experience:


In the model intersecting qualities are grouped into clusters:

• value – e.g. financial, social, educational, professional, personal;

• belonging – e.g. enabling participation and engagement (vs. alienation);

• identity – HE allows people to extend or change themselves, and gain professional attributes (e.g. ‘bedside manner’ or ‘management capability’);

• discovery – e.g. encounter and create new ideas;

• achievement – e.g. getting into university, passing units, getting good marks, completing courses, getting employment;

• connection – e.g. make connections between people, ideas, experiences; develop networks; collaboration in communities;

• opportunity – e.g. academic and professional opportunities and prospects;

• students should feel their experience is enabled and personalised, they acquire competency and capacity to flourish, with information, support, guidance as and when needed.

I use the model with my colleagues to get them to think about our students e.g. who they are; how they approach higher education; ways in which they learn; how they change as they progress; and so on; and also how it links with our Hallmarks. I thought it might be useful to share this model with colleagues on OneHE who might like to consider how this works in their own context for their students’ student experience.

The version of the model developed by Coates, Kelly and Naylor that I use was a draft from March 2016 which has since been updated, and has since had more work.

I will be interested to read what members of the OneHE community make of using this model with their colleagues.

become a member

OneHE is focused on better teaching and supports members to be better connected and informed in a questioning and caring environment. Learn more

All new members receive a 14 day trial period, during which no payments are taken.  

We charge a low membership fee (£3 per month for a Global Member) to keep the OneHE community free from advertising and to generate funding for member-led projects.

Fees are halved in low and medium income countries to encourage participation and create an inclusive global community. Find out whether you are eligible.