Paddy Jackman is the Head of Commercial Services at Imperial College. As part of his role he is responsible for student residences, catering, conferences and sports and leisure facilities. He has overseen the development of the new Southside Halls of Residence and the Ethos Sports Centre. Paddy sees his role as essential in providing a good 'student experience' while at university and he is an enthusiastic supporter of improving the lifestyle and satisfaction of students at Imperial.
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Are league tables important? Is our position in them something we should be concerned about?
You can never be too high in a league table, let?s face it because even if 10% of students are using the guidelines for selecting a university it is affecting 10% of our recruitment population, or our potential student population. With regards to falling in league tables I think there is a degree to which we shouldn't worry and then perhaps we should get worried at a certain point. As long as you retain a position in the top ten, I don't think it needs to necessarily be a concern whether you are six, eight, nine or five. If on the other hand you start falling considerably out of the top ten, whether that be the world ranking where indeed we went from number five to number six in the last world or as you pointed out in the guardian where we've gone from six to eight. I don't think personally that that is too much of a concern at this point in time.
Do you think there is any reason why we are falling? Is it that standards are actually slipping or are the other universities simply getting better?
I think it is the latter. I think others are catching up. I think there is a degree in which some of the league tables, you have to wake up to what some of the assessment criteria are and you have to respond to that and I think that some universities have responded to what the actual assessment criteria actually are and therefore, if you like, have managed to improve their ratings in those areas and to some degree catch us up.
Obviously student satisfaction ratings have been taken as a much heavier indication in recent years. How much do you think is actually down to student opinion and are our satisfaction ratings actually a fair reflection of what happens at Imperial?
I think it?s unfortunate that we use this general word ?student experience? and student satisfaction because in actual fact when people talk about the student experience outside the league tables they are talking about a far wider experience than just the academic experience but if you actually look at the national Student Survey and their assessment of the student experience and student satisfaction it really does purely focus on the academic side. Now I don?t think personally I am in a position to comment on the academic side here, I think we?ve got a world repute which to be honest speaks for itself but I do think in terms of the student experience the College has come on leaps and bounds in the last five years in terms of where it was in putting it?s emphasis on students and recognising the importance of life outside the lecture theatre and laboratory but I still say that Imperial has got quite some way to go if we?re to catch up other universities who put a greater focus on that side of student life.
The NSS does tend to focus more on the academic side but there is a question about your overall satisfaction with how you though your experience at university was. How much of that do you think reflects the wider student experience that you were talking about? Do you think students are taking that into account when they are answering those questions?
I don?t think they are in that one. The only reason I say that is because it is my understanding that it is one of the last questions asked and the gearing towards how that survey goes is the fact that you are thinking totally with the initial questions about the academic experience so I think that subconsciously if you like students are steered towards commenting on just the academic side. It?s helpful for me in the sense that if you are saying, because the overall satisfaction rating for the university is high, so I?d like to think that it did reflect it but I think I?m realistic enough to think that we?ve still got room for improvement in particular areas and if you looked at our score in the non-academic experience and we asked students to assess that compared to other universities I don?t think we are where we need to be yet.
In that case do you think that there is much that could be done by imperial in terms of improving the student experience or is it just purely an academic problem?
No I don?t think it?s purely an academic problem and as I say I think the things in the academic world are being addressed and they are minor shortfalls I have to say in some respects considering the reputation of the institution. But it?s a question now for us of resources. We?re going to go through sometimes where we?re going to have some very difficult decisions to make with regards to where we invest our limited amount of resources and funds that we have available. And there are going to be some tough decisions. If you like, my expression ?the non-academic experience? will be up against other very very high priority issues in the College and the question is ?where does it fit in?? that is a discussion which I am sure the management board and the top management of the College will have to consider very seriously.
With the financial worries that we?ve got are we going to see the huge improvements that I?ve seen since coming to Imperial such as Southside, Ethos, the Library Refurbishment are they going to be taking a bit of a back seat now?
No I don?t think so, I think our capital programme is still pushing ahead. We?re still planning on moving forward with the South East Quadrant programme and the new building effectively there for Mechanical and the Engineering Faculty. I think it has to be said if we are looking at the positive side we are in such a far stronger position than other universities because of our financial health, our background and the amount of funding we get for research activities. That having been said Imperial will not miss out if you like on the effects of the recession unfortunately and whereas we?ve gone through years of plenty where we?ve been able to do a lot of things at the same time there will now be a time when we can do a few things and those few things will have to be prioritised very carefully.
How do you think top-up fees have affected the way that student?s see university? Are they becoming more consumer conscious? Are they looking for more value for money?
Personally I don?t think there is any doubt about it. I absolutely think they are. And I think the other factor we have to take into consideration is that it is not only students that think that way it is guardians, friends and parents in particular who feel that way about the money that is being invested. You only have to look at open day now to see how many students are accompanied for open day by parents, the number has gone far higher than it ever used to be and that?s not just our university but that?s other universities where specific programmes are run for parents on the open day to say what the university will do and how they will protect the investment of those top-up fees. I think it?s only natural. If you?re spending money on anything you want to make sure you are spending your money wisely. Unfortunately that is the way education has gone, I think the majority of people would have liked it, in an ideal world, not to have gone that way, but financial implications of society mean to be honest that it has to if higher education is going to survive in its existing form.
A lot of people say that the student experience at Imperial isn?t as poor as our NSS results make out. Do you think that the top-up fees agenda has actually made students feel even less happy with what they?re getting, even though in fact, comparatively, we aren?t that bad?
Every University will argue that it is unique, and having worked at a couple I can say that they are, but Imperial is completely unique if that is such an expression. The fact of the matter is that we train our students to be incredibly critical of everything that they are doing and the outcome is that they are analysing their experience subconsciously or consciously in minute detail, perhaps far more than we would expect at other universities. Completely from the nature of the studies they are doing here. I personally believe that the experience here is good. It?s not as good as it could be. There is room for further improvement but even if we get to be as good as I want it to be, there will still be Imperial students who criticise it and say that it isn?t as good as it should be.
There is room for improvement. Can you see us going back up? We?re still in the top ten but are we going to get back into that top three?
It depends on the assessment criteria. Clearly I can?t comment from the academic side but if from an overall satisfaction stand point I still think the agenda is driving forward, I still think that you will see improvements here over the next ten years and I?d like to think that that will support students having a favourable view of their period of time that they spend at this college.
Next week, Live! speaks to Pro Rector (Education), Julia Buckingham, about the academic side of the League Tables. Let us know you questions at [email protected].