StudentSurvey.ie is the survey managed by i-graduate on behalf of the Higher Education Authority since 2014. It looks at the academic, personal and social development of students in the Irish HE sector and comprises two surveys – the first focusing on the experiences of first and final year undergraduates and taught postgraduates; the second focusing on Masters and PhD students. Together, these surveys look at student engagement and the extent to which institutions provide such opportunities and encourage students to engage with them.
We hear from Project Manager, Dr. Siobhán Nic Fhlannchadha, on how the StudentSurvey.ie is central to the ongoing success of the country’s Higher Education sector, and the importance of using the data to bring about positive impact.
Put simply, the value of the survey for Siobhán is that it amplifies the student voice:
“With over 50,000 responses each year, it’s a megaphone for the student voice. And yes, of course there are very diverse opinions but at the same time it’s an elevation of those voices; it represents a national platform for those voices to be taken seriously, and for them to feed into how institutions operate and, at a national level, how the sector works.”
As the sole Project Manager for StudentSurvey.ie, Siobhán is responsible, at a central level, for the communications, compliance and data protection aspects of the survey. She also works with the vast stakeholder group responsible for the management of the survey, including staff and management in participating higher education institutions, students’ unions, and sectoral representative bodies, to make sure students take those opportunities to voice opinions.
During a period when the challenges facing the sector have skyrocketed, institutions’ desire to hear that student voice hasn’t waned – in fact institutions have been even keener, adding questions specific to Covid-19 that look at, for example, communications, how connected students felt they were to their institutions, the impact on their research. The subsequent attention the survey results received was huge - and the analysis of these data points was quickly shared with government while they were forming the strategy for return to campus. Siobhán acknowledges how the last 18 months have put significant pressures on institutions requiring them to tackle challenges on multiple fronts, so it’s commendable that the institutions have maintained such a commitment to the survey through this time, despite what may have been a more limited bandwidth.
Aside from the Covid-specific analysis, Siobhán has been looking more closely at first year undergraduates as, in the main, this is their first year of Higher Education experience, and as such they have no frame of reference. Examining the results from 2018, ’19 and ‘20 in totality, Siobhán is using these as a baseline for the 2021 reports to see how responses have changed, but also to bring further robustness to the evidence-base for how Covid-19 has impacted experiences.
Another key function of the survey is how it focuses a lens on the impact of Covid-19 on researchers – in particular the potential for differences in experiences of early career researchers in terms of their discipline. As part of the analysis carried out for the PGR StudentSurvey.ie National Report 2021, the editorial group looked at some of the results by STEM subjects and those that are studying arts, humanities and social sciences, to see how the impact of Covid differs by discipline. The analysis also considered how the impact of Covid-19 on postgraduate researchers may have been different for female and male students.. She explains,
"We already know from other sources that Covid-19 has impacted the genders differently – in later career researchers there has been a disproportionate increase in publication activity in some fields by male researchers which is putting female researchers at a disadvantage, and will do so for years to come."
Siobhán also has a keen interest in the longer term enhancement of student engagement and is conducting a time series analysis going back to 2016 data to understand trends before the impact of Covid-19. Equally important however will be her work on understanding how well different groups of people are recovering. Will there be a different recovery trajectory for those 2021/22 incoming students compared to the incoming students from 2020/21, for example? So, there’s a strong case for looking at the data in any given year but also over time so universities can spot such anomalies and learn from the insight they afford.
Ireland’s continued appetite to understand all aspects of the student experience, and then distil that wealth of data into meaningful insight for institutions, is a real indicator of the desire to be a leading provider of higher education. Of course, turning that insight into impact within the sector is the logical next step. A position paper Siobhán recently helped produce with StudentSurevy.ie and Quality and Qualifications Ireland investigated this - what it means to actually achieve impact from student feedback; how you measure it, who gets to decide what the impact should be; and what is good impact or unintended impact? – all questions for further consideration, but the conversation is underway and backed-up by several years of robust data collection.
Siobhán’s role focusing on the infrastructure for the delivery, analysis and dissemination of the survey is powered by the analysis and impact group that develops tools and resources for institutions to consider impact and how they might achieve that. The impact is also something that is looked at by the Higher Education Authority and Quality and Qualifications Ireland, the national quality assurance agency.
i-graduate’s involvement goes beyond the setting up and running of the survey on the platform in order to collect the data; they also do a lot of the initial stage of analysis such as preparing survey outputs and the various data sets, and then feeding that into the analytics dashboard. The InTouch dashboard developed by i-graduate has been a real plus for Siobhán:
“It has been brilliant – so user-friendly and easy to use, that it has been a huge benefit for institutions to have as it saves them so much time when it comes to creating data visualisations themselves and supports more in-depth analysis.”
It’s a significant advantage for Siobhán when it comes to disseminating the data and insight from the survey, and increasing the value institutions are able to derive from it.
Siobhán’s work with i-graduate started three years ago, and she continues to find the process to be efficient and well-supported at each stage, which just makes life simple, but also gives her great faith in its successful management - something that is quite crucial given her central role in its delivery, the respect it commands in the sector, and the national exposure it receives. Siobhán also comments how she really appreciates the inputs the i-graduate team is able to provide –
“...and that’s not just in terms of management of the survey and how much the team cares for its smooth delivery, but also in terms of imagination – we never stand still and there’s an ongoing project with the i-graduate team looking at enhancements to how the survey is run and how the insight is surfaced to improve the outputs and impact.”
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