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Do large universities truly deliver a superior student experience?

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Do large universities truly deliver a superior student experience?

Dr Tracey Price, Dean of Education/Humanities & Social Sciences

The QILT survey results consistently indicates that large universities are outclassed by smaller providers who offer a superior learning experience in key areas.

QILT is endorsed by Australia's Education Department as a suite of surveys that measure Quality Indicators for Teaching and Learning across every Australian university and non-university higher education provider. Over 400,000 people are surveyed annually. The largest survey, the Student Experience Survey (SES), allows tertiary students to assess their own experience at their respective institution. The SES evaluates tertiary student experiences of Skills Development, Learner Engagement, Teaching Quality, Student Support, Learning Resources, and the overall quality of the educational experience.

Comparing undergraduate students' experiences between universities and non-university (usually smaller) higher education providers reveals that non-university providers excel in the realm of student support, outperforming their university counterparts. Even in areas where it is assumed that larger universities offer excellent teaching quality and career readiness, non-university providers often surpass expectations. Traditionally, the substantial budgets of larger universities are expected to provide more student support and best-practice teaching, but the survey data suggests it is smaller non-university providers who can supply greater personalized support, and who lead the way in educational quality and teaching standards.

Testimonials from students at smaller institutions like Tabor College in Adelaide echo this sentiment. A student at Tabor recently expressed their surprise and delight at the personalized attention received, which contrasted starkly with their previous experience in a larger university setting. This sentiment is not unique; many students migrating from larger institutions to smaller ones attest to receiving contemporary curriculum, excellent teaching and being genuinely and individually supported.

Recent merger discussions between Adelaide University and the University of South Australia aim to create a powerhouse educational institution. While such mergers promise access to broader course offerings, and bolster research capabilities, they raise questions about the individual student experience. Susan Close, South Australia's Deputy Premier, has lauded the merger as good for the research reputation of the State. Similarly, Adelaide University's Vice-Chancellor, Professor Peter Høj AC, heralded the merger as transformative. However, amidst the excitement, it's crucial to ponder how an individual student will benefit from a 'super-sized' institution. Do greater course offerings equate to an enriched and quality learning experience for each student in their chosen course?

Large institutions undoubtedly play a pivotal role by boasting impressive facilities and driving significant research endeavours. Yet, the essence of quality education lies in the user experience—how students engage, learn, and are readied for their profession.

The QILT data prompts reflection on the essence of education—quality over quantity. Smaller, non-university providers ensure a more community-based and nurturing environment where students are valued and supported. As Australia's current Universities Accord statements suggest, our educational landscape needs to evolve and to diversify. Tertiary providers must prioritise equitable access as well as a quality learning experience, ensuring, as smaller providers can, that each student is empowered and enriched by their studies.

Dr Tracey Price, Dean of Education/Humanities & Social Sciences

Tabor Institute of Higher Education


Student Experience Survey. (n.d.). QILT. Retrieved May 21, 2024, from

Uni merger passes State Parliament, ushering in an exciting new era in higher education in SA (2023, November 16). Premier of South Australia.,-ushering-in-an-exciting-new-era-in-higher-education-in-sa