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Leeds & Yorkshire

Issue 483, 5 June 2002

What makes a happy student? The biggest ever survey at Leeds is finding the answers

The happiest student of all lives at home, drinks only moderately, doesn't work to supplement their finances, has good friends, is being taught well in a well-organised department, and plans a career in the same field as their degree. In the biggest systematic survey of student satisfaction and well-being carried out in higher education, the University has been finding out what its 21,000 undergraduates need to stay happy.

The university quality of life and learning (UNIQoLL) project differs from the usual university satisfaction surveys. Rather than asking students simply to rate their courses or departments, it links student perception of their learning experience and the support they receive with other major student preoccupations – such as money, social life and accommodation – to provide an overall picture of the student experience at Leeds.

Findings so far vindicate Leeds' continuing popularity. All departments score well on their teaching and academic support, and most students consider the standard of educational provision at the University to be high.

The inspiration for UNIQoLL came from a small-scale survey in the school of computing in 1998-9. After a larger pilot the following year, the study was extended to every first-year undergraduate in all University departments in 2000-2001. Not the standard one-off, end of year questionnaire, UNIQoLL is an on-going study with three surveys during the academic year – before registration and at the end of the first and second semesters – and tracking changes as students progress through their degrees. Last year, 84% of students sent back at least one questionnaire.

'This is the age of student feedback, and in UNIQoLL we have the most professional and systematic means of finding out what students want," said Pro-Vice-Chancellor for student affairs Dr Harry Lewis. "The challenge now is to ensure results are taken on at a departmental, and institutional level, to implement change where required, and learn from best practice."

Some of the findings confirm generally held views about student concerns – though the details are sometimes surprising. Around 20% of the respondents considered themselves as having lowered levels of well-being at any one time, and the percentage was marginally higher for men than for women – the majority cited social support networks as a major factor in their well-being.

The study has found that students do a weekly average of 14 hours paid work Monday to Friday, and around seven and a half hours on a weekend – in termtime and holidays. Students say that this puts pressure on their studies, and worries about money were one of the common factors affecting well-being.

Surprisingly, the family or parental home was rated the best place to live, for studying, relaxation and to provide a good night's sleep. While University halls rated higher for privacy, living at home wasn't seen as detrimental to students' social life.

In terms of University accommodation, students rated houses lower than flats, and halls came out consistently on top for physical comfort, staff and security, and the environment they provide for socialising.

"The findings were quite a surprise," said residential and commercial services director David Irving. "Small houses were thought to be popular with students for the independence they offered, but UNIQoLL has shown us this isn't their highest priority. We are now considering disposing of our small houses, and creating larger accommodation complexes, which in addition are easier for the University to manage."

For academic provision, departments were rated on factors such as students’ first impressions, guidance and academic support provided, availability of staff, effectiveness of teaching, benefit gained from lectures, access to computers and the quality of support from departmental staff.

"The survey doesn't gather concrete facts in all these areas, but how students perceive them," said UNIQoLL co-director Professor Michael Barkham. "Collating all the information across a department, and the University as a whole, provides us with a better understanding of the student experience. We can then see where things need changing, or whether things need to be presented in a different way to improve student perceptions."

A consistent factor in student well-being is social support networks. Such networks are not all beyond the scope and influence of the University, but can be provided through groups and events within departments and residences.

The student union also plays a major role in social provision. LUU has been closely involved with UNIQoLL since it began, with two representatives on the project's steering group.

Nightline co-ordinator Sarah Yandell has nothing but praise for the study: "It's a brilliant project. It told us students saw Nightline as support only for times of total despair. We want them to use the service when they've anything on their minds, from feeling lonely down to where to get a late-night pizza. We're now changing our promotional material as a result."

UNIQoLL is run jointly by staff in psychology and computing and managed by a steering group chaired by Dr Sally McGill, and attended by the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for student affairs. Data is reported to the learning and teaching board, and then fed onto departments via faculty learning and teaching committees.

This year, both first and second-years were included in the survey and the next academic session will cover all three years, bringing responses from the first cohort of students (the 2000 intake) followed throughout their undergraduate studies.

Professor Barkham said. "The 2002-03 results will give us the first overall picture of students' well-being throughout their studies. We’ll then be able to relate that to their final degrees, to discover which factors have the greatest impact on academic performance. And we'll also start to see how the information from UNIQoLL is influencing policy and practice to improve the university experience for all undergraduates."

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