September and October are usually the season for university open days, and this year is no exception. But over the years, the expectations of prospective students have changed. Back in the olden days, the key issues for prospective students were student accommodation, sporting facilities and amenities, and the suitability of the university’s location as a possible haven away from the prying eyes of overbearing parents. Don’t get me wrong. These issues are still important for today’s prospective student. However, unlike the cohorts of yester year, today’s open day visitors are now placing equal, if not more, emphasis on universities’ learning and teaching environments, including such outcomes as graduate career chances and employability.
Emerging Changes in Open Days
Open days often fall on Saturdays. In the olden days, open day duties often fell on those unfortunate enough to have responsibilities for undergraduate teaching, and for newly recruited academics. The situation now appears to have changed. Up and down the country, it seems, engineering departments are now deploying their “best” academics to host prospective students and their parents on open days. And for good reason too. Student fee income now determines the success and continued operation of a department, its re-organisation – euphemism for staff retrenchment and merger with other departments – or at worst, its closure.
For the diligent academic, open days offer a unique opportunity for assessing the expectations of prospective students and their parents. As I found out this year, prospective engineering students have become extremely savvy in their academic requirements. Whilst I agree with the generality of the literature on student transitions that some of the expectations of prospective students tend to be unrealistic, the casual conversations that I had with parents and prospective students this year paint a somewhat different picture. It is now clear to me that both prospective students and their parents are now quite well-researched about the programmes that they intend to follow.
Demand for Industry Links
Moreover, the prospective students that I met have very clear expectations on the nature of teaching they want. As expected amongst engineering students, their prime concerns are employability related issues. As expected, students wanted to know more about the possibility for industrial placements, as well as the availability of any career-support programmes in the university. However, most interestingly, students were extremely interested in the extent to which industry collaborates with us in teaching and assessment. For example, they also wanted to know to what extent industry contributed to project-based learning activities, including the extent to which students get to work on authentic industry sourced projects.
Demand for Research Involvement
Whilst students of yester year have expressed satisfaction with simply being in a department associated with some notable research expertise, this year I found out that prospective student expectations are now much higher. Quite a number of prospective students wished to know the kind of research they might be involved with in the first year, and whether they would get to work with some noted researchers on actual university research programmes. They even mentioned some noteworthy names within engineering, and even mentioned some of our current research projects. Of course, in previous years we would simply have laughed this away. But this year it is definitely different. Prospective students fully expect to get their hands into real research, and we have no option but to find a way of facilitating this. It is no wonder that universities are coming up with strategies for research-based learning including, for example, the UCL Connected Curriculum.
Demand for Personalisation
It also appears personalisation has become a key issue for prospective students. For instance a number of prospective students wished to know whether there were opportunities to specialise in certain subject areas, or whether there were opportunities to complement their degree programmes with courses from other faculties, so as the create an appropriate match between their studies and prospective careers. Moreover, prospective students were also looking for opportunities to spend time in institutions in other countries.
What it means for the Academic
Of course, most universities have launched various undergraduate reform programmes. This includes the introduction of various forms of project-based learning, and in some cases, wholesale re-organisation of undergraduate programmes to introduce more collaborative, research-based and industry-linked programmes like the Integrated Engineering Programme at UCL. However, the big question is: To what extent does the average engineering academic buy into these initiatives, and to what extent is the average academic aware of the demands being made by prospective engineering students? Clearly, open days should be a must for all engineering academics, just as they are a must for prospective engineering students.