It is hard to find a university in Australia or internationally that does not promise a unique and rewarding student experience. Yet there is growing evidence that many universities are not delivering on this intent, and the pressure to improve the student experience is steadily increasing. In addition to competition from universities and other providers, students themselves expect more from universities, given the rising cost of education and their experience as customers elsewhere.
Regulators are also upping the ante. In Australia, the Commonwealth Government wants to ‘put student outcomes at the centre of learning’ by basing funding for universities on performance. The Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching, used to measure student outcomes, gives it leverage to achieve this aim. In the UK, The Office for Students has repeatedly raised the importance of a quality student experience, and value for money is a prominent theme in the UK government’s Review of Post-18 Education and Funding.
Universities that deliver an outstanding student experience will be rewarded. The challenge for universities is to understand the drivers influencing student experience and leverage them to deliver for all students.
Student experience comprises every interaction between a student and the people, places and systems at their university. A quality experience involves connecting and engaging students at multiple levels. It starts with dreams about going to university, and extends to reflections years after graduation about learning and personal connections, both within and outside the curriculum.
From Nous’ work with universities, we have distilled these interactions into connections essential for a quality student experience: student-to-student (connection with peers); student-to-academics (connection with teaching staff); student-to-industry (connection with future networks and employment); student-to-community (connection to the wider world); and student-to-university (connection to the institution).
Most universities think of the student-to-university connection first. However, this is often the last connection, enabled when institutions get the other connections right. Similarly, some institutions are deeply focussed on campus experience or virtual experience as the key lever for enhancing student experiences. While important, these approaches mistake channels and place-based approaches with the core purpose – creating meaningful and tangible relationships and a sense of belonging.
A quality student experience requires connections in each domain illustrated in Figure 1 below.
Figure 1 | Key connections create a high-quality student experience
Networks of friends formed in university promote a student’s chances of academic and professional success. These networks provide advice to students, often before they engage with the university’s services.
The most innovative universities are encouraging student-to-student connections by curating early interactions for prospective and new students. Some are actively connecting prospective students with recent alumni to advise them on what it’s really like at the university. Some are proactively using data to assist students create meaningful connections quickly, including leveraging information provided by students as part of their application or mined from social media platforms (with student permission), to connect students with others who share similar interests, even if they don’t share classes.
Innovative digital approaches to encouraging student-to-student connection are moving away from information provision through apps and websites, to platform provision, allowing students space to connect and co-create their own virtual campus – like ‘Facebook’ for your university. Campus design is more and more being used to enable effective student-to-student interactions, recognising the growing need to attract students to campus to interact face to face.
Students with a clear sense of the intent of their studies and who find the learning environment intellectually stimulating do better academically and enjoy the student experience more.
However, democratisation of information means students are not waiting to be awed by an ‘expert’. Instead they are looking for facilitation, coaching and mentoring to shape their learning. They seek and respond to “powerful conversations” with experts who enable their understanding and inspire them for the future.
The skills required for academics to deliver these experiences differ from what has typically been required. Evolution of pedagogical understanding is leading to changes in curriculum and the ways academics engage with students. The best examples exhibit multidisciplinary, student-oriented approaches, and are both structured in the curation of learning experiences, and fluid to enable deeper relationships and experienced to emerge.
Many students highly prioritise future employment prospects. Indeed, some students evaluate their student experience by the extent to which it helps them reach their career goals.
To achieve this, students are seeking an authentic connection with prospective employers. This can come in the form of work-integrated learning, where students solve real problems for real organisations, or as meaningful connections with people in their target industries.
These connections help students stay engaged with their studies. If learning is disconnected from the real world, students can perceive it as being less valuable.
A clear value proposition for industry to engage in these relationships will strengthen your ability to help students foster connections. New approaches to foster closer connections between learning and industry can be highly impactful, including through involving industry experts in course delivery, and using analysis of real-time jobs data to understand key employers and changing key skills.
Students’ time at university should be characterised by challenge and personal growth. We believe the best student experience encourages a reflective approach to development across all engagements with university life.
Universities that create opportunities for students to identify and enact their values will change those students’ lives. Values can manifest themselves through study, leadership, volunteering and work-integrated learning. These connections cement a student’s sense of belonging and purpose.
Creating these opportunities involves understanding students’ expectations when they start studying and monitoring the university’s performance. A coaching approach to career development for students can enable universities to co-create, with students, opportunities to fulfil their changing expectations as they grow through various learning experiences within and outside the curriculum.
Innovative curriculum delivery can also engage students in projects that deliver real world impact. Some of Nous’ most exciting work involves experience co-design with students, academics and industry partners that will allow students to pursue their values as they study.
Universities want an affectionate glint in an alumnus’ eyes when they speak of their alma mater. This happy recollection reflects the solid connection that leads people to give back beyond graduation. This warmth keeps people coming back to an institution for their postgraduate and research studies and encourages others to go where family and friends had such good experiences.
A university can grow the relationship with its alumni beyond graduation, but success will depend on whether graduates reflect positively on their student experience. Universities should aim to produce graduates for whom leaving is a bittersweet experience, and who want to stay connected.
All students measure their experience at university through these connections. Universities that help students make meaningful connections offer a rewarding student experience. The student experience impacts on attraction, retention, reputation, financials, rankings and, ultimately, the ability of a university to operate sustainably.
Improving the student experience is within the university’s control. There are levers the university can pull to build a compelling value proposition for students.
Get in touch with Nous to talk about what a compelling student experience could look like at your university.
 New figures highlight need for uni performance funding (November 2017), press release from Simon Birmingham (Federal Minister for Education and Training).
 Baik, C., Naylor, R., & Arkoudis, S. The First Year Experience in Australian Universities: Finding from two decades, 1994-2014, Centre for the Study of Higher Education (March 2015).