Universities could boost experience by partnering with students

20 April 2023 Consultancy.uk 4 min. read
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As UK universities face a funding crunch, and compete with each other to attract fee-paying students, they may be overlooking simple ways to make themselves more attractive to prospective candidates. A new study suggests that while 44% of institutions find co-designing student experiences is an effective way of improving them, just 5% are fully partnering with students to do so.

Since the introduction of tuition fees in commenced the marketisation of higher education in England and Wales, universities have happily availed themselves of rising amounts, both from domestic and international students. However, they have also faced continued criticism for failing to improve their services in line with their heightened pricing.

If education is a marketised service, some argue, then universities should offer the kind of support that other institutions would offer their customers. A consistent failure to live up to these rising expectations is reflected by flagging rates of satisfaction in the annual National Student Survey. While it is often boycotted by student unions, the study found in 2022 that 76.3% of 325,000 students canvassed were ‘satisfied’ with the overall quality of their course.

What approaches have been most effective in improving student experience?

This sank further in certain categories, with only 69% of respondents in England feeling staff at their institution valued students’ views and opinions on courses, while just 52% believed it was clear how students’ feedback on courses has been acted on. Even as universities scramble to find ways to ramp up recruitment, however, a reluctance remains to act on such feedback – and instead, the Office for Students – which runs the National Student Survey on behalf of the UK’s funding and regulatory bodies, Students in England – will no longer ask students about the overall quality of their course in future editions.

The results of new research from Nous Group suggest that universities may want to re-think their approach to student feedback, however. According to a survey of more than 180 student experience leaders at universities across Australia, Canada and the UK, 60% of respondents said their current support model only somewhat catered to diverse student cohorts and different needs.

In the wake of the pandemic, technology remains the top priority, to find ways of reaching students beyond the classroom. However, Nous Group found that 44% of experience leaders believed co-designing with students would be an equally effective method of boosting student experience. While many survey respondents noted that students are ‘involved’ or ‘actively involved’ in the design and delivery of initiatives, just 5% of universities regularly partnered with students – fewer than the 11% of institutions where they were minimally involved, if at all.

Which of these student academic support services is the most important for an institution to deliver an outstanding experience? Responses as per-centage from jurisdiction

Nous Group Principal and Global Head of Higher Education Zac Ashkanasy, commented, “In today’s operating environment, universities are balancing increasing financial and operational pressures alongside the need to continually improve and evolve their student experience. An outstanding experience is delivered when it is designed for all students however our research shows most universities are yet to meet the changing needs of their diverse student populations and are struggling to cost-effectively scale their support.”

This is particularly important for UK institutions, which were found to have notably more complex expectations that their global counterparts. While more than 40% of Canada and Australia’s respondents clearly saw teaching and learning as the most important factors when it came to delivering ‘outstanding experience’, this fell to 31% among UK institutions.

At the same time, a much higher portion of UK respondents prioritised peer support and tutoring, and academic skills – both at 23%. And while it was the smallest portion for all three countries, a higher 4% of UK respondents said course administration was also important for this. In this context, working collaboratively with students to meet their expectations – and build a reputation which can help attract the next generations of academic talent – is particularly important.