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Delivering a great student experience is one of the higher education hot topics. Just like businesses, universities are struggling to define the exact nature and scope of their customers’ experiences.
There is no doubt that the university experience has changed over the decades. Advances in technology, improvements to university infrastructure and better, more diversified, education for both students and educators are just some of the main benefits.
However, this progress has also added complexity and, courtesy of the internet, contributed to a more competitive market. Universities today compete globally with each other for students and teaching faculty. Higher education is exposed to the same challenges which face international businesses.
Today, with a few keystrokes, a student can easily investigate and select the university of his or her choice. The power has markedly shifted from the education provider (seller) to the student (customer). However, for students, not all has changed for the better.
Ever-increasing tuition fees and living costs mean that most students begin their post-university career facing a mountain of debt. Universities are aware that student loans are often not enough to make ends meet and actively encourage them to look for part-time jobs. This leads to students facing a heavy workload.
In the past universities could rely on the leverage of their brand reputation, their rankings and a glossy prospectus to attract students. In today’s competitive environment universities are struggling to find new, sustainable, sources of differentiation, while also making the student experience enjoyable.
Taking a leaf out of business books, universities have introduced surveys to measure the student experience and discover how satisfied they were with their time at the university.
As a result, in recent years there has been a rise in websites where students can grade their professors, as well as – in the UK – the National Student Survey, where students can share their perceptions of their teachers. However, I cannot recall many instances where a dean changed university policies or recruiting guidelines based on these results.
Teachers, however, have taken notice, but they often feel threatened by the results, leading to defensiveness. This is a natural reaction because feedback is uncensored, often anonymous, and gives teachers no opportunity to reply.
More importantly, these satisfaction surveys do not come with guidelines on how to improve existing perceptions. Meaning that very little changes for either students or teachers. To give students and teachers a better experience than one which is based on satisfaction surveys, the current system needs to change.
Students and teachers should have an opportunity to exchange views on performance and other matters in frequent sessions during the semester in a non-threatening, non-confrontational environment. This would allow both sides to analyse each other’s perceptions and discuss possible solutions to try to make the learning environment a mutually rewarding experience.
Not only should the students’ experiences be assessed during their time at university, but also, more importantly, years later, once they have left university. It is only when students apply their knowledge that they can judge how beneficial their experience was in relation to their career and life goals. It would also be helpful to have a measurement for the long-term impact of the student experience. This measurement would go beyond simple satisfaction and would evaluate the impact of the teaching the students received on their career progression and application of knowledge. Such an evaluation would take place three, five and seven years after graduation and would allow for a more useful assessment of the university and teaching performance.
But, perhaps most importantly, the student university experience would be improved if expectations were managed from the start, establishing a culture of feedback and exchange, implementing a longer-term teaching quality audit system, and following up on the overall student experience over time.
According to my research in customer experience and satisfaction, this would be likely to lead to well-managed experiences for universities, teachers and students. Most importantly, students would feel that their investment in their education was being taken seriously allowing them to enjoy and cherish their time in higher education.
The author is a researcher at Brunel University, London and the author of Measuring Customer Experience – How to Develop and Execute the Most Profitable Customer Experience Strategies.
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