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Just How Important Is Community Membership For Freshers? | HE Research Snippet #20

The UK’s HE funding bodies are asking if they should include an optional question in NSS on feelings of community membership at university.

Tags: HE Thinking

Andreanne Orsier, Higher Education Research Team
Andreanne Orsier, Higher Education Research Team

Andréanne heads up YouthSight’s Higher Education research team and helps universities drive commercial success.

The UK’s HE funding bodies are asking if they should include an optional question in NSS on feelings of community membership at university.

As our insight last year suggested, feelings of community membership matter to undergraduate students. Students who feel themselves to have been inducted into the community when they start rate their early experiences more highly. Universities where excellent early experiences are most prevalent have fewer drop-out after the first year. Or to put it another way, if students feel welcome on arrival, they’re more likely to stay. So far, so obvious.

Now, we’ve taken our analysis further. Instead of focusing on outcomes in the first year, we’ve correlated our early experiences data with HESA’s other student Performance Indicators: degree outcomes and employment. The results are striking. Universities that receive more ‘excellent’ ratings for the first term also have higher degree completion rates and better DLHE scores.

Figure 1

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2012/13 data. Each point represents a HEI (n=106). Only HEIs with a sample >= 30 in Higher Expectations 2012/13 included.


Universities with ‘excellent’ first terms have more students gain degrees

The graph above compares two benchmarked HESA performance indicators (T5 projected outcome – degree; T5 projected outcome – neither award nor transfer, benchmarked) against the proportion of new undergraduate students who rated their early university experience as ‘excellent’. Higher Expectations gathers these rating data in the first term of a new undergraduate’s first year. As the graph shows, institutions where ‘excellent’ ratings are most prevalent also have higher projected rates of gaining a degree. Where prevalence of excellence is lower, the likelihood of undergraduates not being awarded a degree is higher. These correlations are statistically significant and strong.


Universities with ‘excellent’ first terms also have better DLHE scores

The graph below compares the same excellence data with another HESA student PI (HESA T1a Employment Indicator, benchmarked) commonly known as the six month DLHE score. Again, we see a strong, statistically significant correlation. Those universities where excellence is more prevalent are also those where a higher proportion of graduates go on to secure graduate-level jobs or higher-level study.

Figure 2

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2012/13 data. Each point represents a HEI (n=106). Only HEIs with a sample >= 30 in Higher Expectations 2012/13 included.


This isn’t a new proxy measure for perceived eliteness

It might be that we’re measuring something we don’t mean to measure. Maybe students at Russell Group institutions rate their early experiences more highly than others simply because they are at Russell Group universities.

When we test this idea, as in the graph below, we see this is not the case. Three Russell Group HEIs are in the bottom half for early experiences, and the degree of correlation between early experiences and projected degree outcomes is comparable to that in other HEIs. We have not created a new proxy for perceived eliteness by measuring early experiences.

Figure 3

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2012/13 data. Russell Group based on 23 HEIs, non-Russell Group based on 83 HEIs. Correlations for both groups are strong and significant. Only HEIs with a sample >= 30 in Higher Expectations 2012/13 included.


Russell Group universities’ early experiences don’t match employment outcomes

However, Russell Group HEIs are different in one important regard. There is no correlation between the prevalence of excellence in early experiences and DLHE data at Russell Group universities. For students at Russell Group HEIs, it seems there are other factors at play in the employment market.

Figure 4

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2012/13 data. Russell Group based on 23 HEIs (weak, insignificant correlation), non-Russell Group based on 83 HEIs (strong, significant). Only HEIs with a sample >= 30 in Higher Expectations 2012/13 included.


Do excellent early experiences inoculate new undergraduates against failure?

This analysis does not demonstrate that good early experiences for undergraduates cause them to get their degrees and to get graduate jobs. A series of strong correlations do not equal causation. It might be simply that universities that are good at some things, like welcome, are also good at other things, like preparing their students for the job market.

Our qualitative data, however, give us cause to speculate. The open box comments from Higher Expectations show that many students reporting excellent early experiences also value feelings of community membership established at welcome. Those rating their early experiences as ‘awful’ often report unwelcoming behaviour from staff, or infer slights from instances of disorganisation.

So, it might be the case that establishing relationships in the university community in the early weeks means that later, when problems arise, they’re easier to solve. Students who feel able to draw on established links with academics, student support professionals, students on their course, and friends are simply better equipped to work out their problems than those who feel alone or somehow excluded. For the networked, the village helps solve the problem.


Welcome should be a high strategic priority

All this has important implications for universities and what they choose to focus on. If improving welcome will improve students’ study and life outcomes as our analysis suggests, welcome and induction must become a high strategic priority. For some universities, promoting such prosaic matters to strategic imperative might be anti-cultural. But, the prize is so large and the means of achieving it so inexpensive that it warrants serious consideration. Maybe the time has come for every university to be radically prosaic.

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This analysis is based on our annual Higher Expectations study, which reveals how HEIs perform in comparison to each other in the eyes of their most important critics: their own undergraduates and those who decline offers of study. Now, the study is delivered in a simple, flexible, and secure online dashboard. Please contact James MacGregor to discuss.