The importance of the student voice has come under fire in recent weeks with poor turnouts reported in student union elections. The low turnouts might be an indicator of political apathy, but the opinionated nature of the student remains, which is a good omen for the future of university reviews.
Before you book a holiday on the Internet it’s almost second nature to search for reviews on Trip Advisor to make sure that you are getting the best deal. Before you purchase anything on Amazon you look at the reviews from people who have already bought the item to ensure it’s as good quality as claimed.
In consumer culture, we mistrust companies and the claims they make in their marketing campaigns. Consumers simply no longer believe the spiel companies use to promote their products or services, and trust for a brand is becoming rarer and rarer due to a greater consumer choice. A well written review has the ability to make or break a company; it represents a voice that we as consumers can trust. If used effectively, companies can greatly benefit from independent reviews.
But perhaps strangely, universities have thus far managed to avoid being sucked into the review culture. Students are expected to rely on the words of the universities rather than those of fellow students who have already experienced every aspect of student life. When I applied to university in 2008, I received a ton of prospectuses through the post and attended so many open days that I lost count. While the open days were, for me, the most effective way of being able to imagine what it would be like to study at the university, they didn’t come without their pitfalls. Being led around the campuses by smiley students and meeting with future lecturers was undoubtedly useful, but I couldn’t help but think that a lot of what I was hearing was a ruse. Obviously lecturers want you to study on their courses, and it is obviously in the university’s interest to recruit students.
It was hard to determine how much of the information was sugarcoated to make the university sound better than it actually is. This is where independent student reviews would’ve made a difference for me and I can’t help but wonder how many sixth formers are now in the same predicament.
The odd thing is, the reviews are already there for students to see. There a thousands of threads on The Student Room where former students will give advice to future and current students on anything from being a fresher to student finance. Whatuni also makes a big fuss of student reviews and will be announcing the winners of its Student Choice Awards next month.
These reviews are an important resource for sixth formers who appreciate an honest student opinion, especially when compared to the overly positive marketing messages that universities issue.
Holly Marquez, a sixth former from Winchmore School in Enfield agrees that reviews are useful: "Student reviews are one of the few ways we - as sixth form students - can actually find out what current students think about our prospective universities in an honest, personal way as they're becoming increasingly difficult to choose between."
Holly highlights a particular problem that is partly caused by the marketing campaigns that universities use. The abundance of prospectuses and information distributed at open days has made it more difficult for sixth formers to see differences between institutions.
This is a problem that is all too familiar for careers advisers like Juliet Lasslett. Finding ways to help sixth formers distinguish between universities is becoming harder and harder, but independent student reviews are seen as a vital tool.
"At EBP Kent, student reviews are a key tool to open discussion with young people about their chosen university. Reading the views of young people is like a refreshing reality check that no other marketing Information provides."
It’s clear that whilst many sixth formers may not be aware of the significance of student reviews, there is a real need to promote their importance. It’s also clear that producing traditional prospectuses is failing to distinguish one university from another, and sixth form students are finding it increasingly difficult to make their choices and trust everything that universities say.