The introduction of higher fees and globalisation have created a competitive environment in which UK universities operate. Higher fees and globalisation have placed emphasis on higher education institutions operating as a profit driven sector with feedback sought from consumers in the form of large scale surveys e.g. National Student Survey (NSS). Our understanding of the student experience has been framed within a broadly positivist framework, which arguably limits our understanding. The purpose of this study was to trial a new way of exploring the student experience. This novel approach used the psychological contract as a sensitising concept. It has been used to explore the implicit understandings that employees develop about their employment but is not widely used in higher education. A constructivist grounded theory approach was adopted that used data collected over a three-year period at one university starting at a time when higher fees were first introduced. Nine staff were recruited for phase one (individual interviews) and included academics from different subject disciplines. Phase two involved seven focus groups that included thirty-six first-year undergraduates from a variety of courses. Phase three comprised a series of one-to-one interviews with students who were recruited from the focus groups in their first and following two years of study. Three theoretical findings emerged; expectations, exchange and engagement. The interactive and dynamic nature of these findings was analysed, and a substantive theory developed as an exemplar. This study is significant as it offers a new approach to exploring the student experience. As an investigative approach it offers an interpretation of the student experience that is dynamic and multi-faceted. It is potentially of interest to policy makers and practitioners to gain new insights into the student experience and suggestions about how they can shape and influence the student experience, enabling recommendations for further research.

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