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Happiness in Education

Image Credit: Nathalie Rosales-Cheng

Many university ranking systems seem to favour ANU as a world-class research institution that spearheads academic progress. A walk around campus will see ANU boasting that it is ‘ranked first in Australia’ or it is among the ‘top 15 law schools in the world.’ These ranking systems emphasise a range of factors relating to a university’s educational output. Among these factors are the quality of research, the number of Nobel Prize winners, and the number of citations academics garner from their work. Yet, very few of these ranking systems account for a crucial aspect of university life: student satisfaction.

Recent studies confirm feelings likely shared by many ANU students. A cursory glance at data gathered on the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) indicates that ANU performs poorly in many areas of undergraduate student experience: learner engagement (60.0 per cent  versus the national average of 64.2 per cent), learning resources (82.9 per cent versus 85.2 per cent) and skills development (77.4 per cent versus 81.2 per cent) were all well below the national average. Perhaps the most concerning was the ‘student support’ aspect, which sat at 64.5 per cent, a whole 7.5 per cent below the national average of 72.0 per cent. Regarding the overall quality of educational experience, the ANU sat on the national average of 79.9 per cent. In contrast, Bond University had the highest overall quality of educational experience in Australia, sitting at 90.2 per cent.

The issue is that the academic rankings of universities tend to conflate academic prestige with a fulfilling, well-supported student experience. This trend can be particularly misleading and damaging to those entering university for the first time. For instance, when selecting universities, between 70 to 80 per cent of international students prioritise the academic prestige of the university according to the mainstream ranking systems. After having paid upfront the full academic fees for the semester (roughly $20,000), they are sometimes left with a sense of dissatisfaction and disappointment with the education they are receiving. Loss aversion then compels these students to absorb these significant sunk costs and continue studying at their university. This dissatisfaction can then lead to poor mental health and educational outcomes for not only international students but also interstate domestic students.

A study conducted at the University of Western Australia concluded that the primary determinants of student satisfaction at university are school work, time management, and relationships formed while at university. The ‘school work’ variable looked at questions such as ‘I am given the chance to do work that interests me’; ‘I achieve a standard in my work which I consider satisfactory,’ and ‘I can cope with my university work well.’ These factors all require a combination of academic competence and support from the university.

We know that our academics are leading, world-class researchers in their field – but are they also pedagogical experts? The data above seems to point in a different direction: that we need academics who inspire and sustain a passion for learning while taking on some pastoral care responsibilities to ensure their students are coping. Through doing so, perhaps we can close the gap between student satisfaction and academic prestige.