Universities need to focus on students – not teach to targets – to help them succeed


The Office for Students, England’s higher education regulator, has outlined new proposals to ensure university students reach “acceptable outcomes” from their studies.

The proposals, released as consultation documents, include numerical targets. For full-time students, 80% of those studying for their first degree should continue in their study after the first year, 75% should complete their course, and 60% should go on to managerial or professional employment or further study. Universities that do not meet these targets could face investigation and sanctions.

There’s a danger that these measures could encourage universities to teach students to an adequate level to pass each successive year of their course. But higher education is about learning, not just teaching. And research shows how important the preparedness and attitude of students is to their success with the independent learning style of university. A better way to ensure that students make the most of their higher education may be to focus on their readiness for university.

If students do not engage with what is provided and get to grips with self-directed and independent learning, then there is not much chance of getting them to these proposed targets. Research into student engagement recognises the link between the amount of time and effort students put into their studies and the desired outcomes of education.

The University of Portsmouth, along with Nottingham, Solent and Manchester Metropolitan universities, ran a project to investigate students’ experiences of blended learning – the combination of traditional and online learning methods – during the pandemic.

A comment from one participant in a focus group shows how some students have fully embraced the need to engage with their studies.

You’re supposed to be more independent … A lot of people won’t understand that and maybe it won’t be till it’s maybe too late and they’ll think oh, I actually had to put in the work myself as well. That’s not really the responsibility of the university staff and more like an individual decision you have to make yourself in terms of your relationship with your learning.

Another said:
Independent learning is meant to be preparing us for after uni, where we’re actually working on our own … but the point is that you’re meant to understand the content yourself and be able to do it.
Of course, good learning does not all come from the student. Our project showed that engaging and motivating teaching, and interaction with staff were all seen as essential parts of quality teaching.

Ready for university

At the University of Portsmouth, we are involved in measures to improve the student experience. As part of this, we are piloting an initiative to help students understand how prepared they are for studying at a higher education level.

Students complete a questionnaire to help them identify where they might like to focus their attention and seek support from university student services, in discussion with their personal tutor. It covers academic skills, cognitive strategies, and transition skills.

In an ideal world, activities like this should happen at school or college before young people leave for university. They would then have a sound understanding of what to expect from university – what skills and competencies they already possess, and how their university can support them to gain more and enhance what they already have.

A successful education sees the development of the whole person. In higher education, with most undergraduate students transitioning between teenage years to adulthood, university provides a rite of passage and journey from dependence to independence.

Research shows that giving students the space to develop as a person within a community of peers allows them to reach their potential.

Getting a job and contributing to society and the economy are indicators of success, but some students need more time than others to get there. The metrics proposed by the Office for Students do not take into account the varied starting points of students and that the three years of undergraduate study are not an equal experience for all students.

Higher education has traditionally been a place for fostering and promoting independent thinking and working. Universities provide students with transferable skills and graduate attributes that will serve them well in their future lives, whatever direction they take.

Author Bios: Catherine Carroll-Meehan is Head of School of Education and Sociology (EDSOC) and Harriet Dunbar-Morris is Dean of Learning and Teaching and Reader in Higher Education both at the University of Portsmouth