In 2012, the rise in student tuition fees to £9,000 turned the UK Higher Education market on its head. Disregarding the political debate around the increase, the impact is clear: university students are now discerning customers.
In the era of cheaper Higher Education, students were grateful recipients of a perceived public service; now they are expectant consumers. Students today recognise their power as a buyer of Higher Education, creating new expectations and demands on the experience that a university offers. Coupled with the fact that today’s students are Centennials, this shift increases the importance of student experience more than ever. To thrive in this new environment, universities are increasingly looking to provide a compelling experience for their students. To achieve this ambition, a number of lessons can be learnt from the world of business and its focus on experience-based differentiation.
In the ‘Age of the Customer’, this challenge is not unique to Higher Education. Customers in the private sector, perhaps unsurprisingly, choose the services that they find most satisfying, and the need to ensure customer retention drives businesses to innovate and improve experiences. The value of meeting (and exceeding) customer expectations is well documented; universities should learn from the world of business by creating a truly differentiated student experience. Given the importance of providing customers with an experience that keeps them coming back and inspires them to share with others, two particular learnings stand out:
1 - Take an end-to-end view of the student experience
First, universities would benefit from taking a holistic, end-to-end view of their student experience. It’s easy to only focus on the time period from enrolment to graduation, or on one particular element of their experience, such as teaching quality. However, the full student journey starts years before the application period and continues right through to their experience as a member of the alumni community. It’s only when you look holistically at this journey that you can fully optimise the experience by connecting all touch points together. This doesn’t need to be a long-term ambition; universities can start to do this now. Gathering a group of students together and interviewing them about their end-to-end experience provides insight into what might be changed or improved. Change something, learn from it, and then repeat this process.
In the UK, Loughborough University is leading the way by looking holistically at the student experience. At the core of their 2020 strategy is the ambition to provide ‘a life-shaping student experience’ that looks beyond their learning experience at university and into their future life prospects, both personally and professionally. This means that the university regularly interacts with a wide range of employers (including North Highland) through schemes such as the Collaborative Project. This ensures that students connect with employers and have the skills they need for the workplace, which provides for a network of engaged students, alumni, and employers, as well as a creating more rounded student experience.
2 - Build a cross-functional and empowered team
A second key lesson from the private sector is around the team(s) that will achieve your goals. The factors that impact customer experience often sit across multiple business functions, and therefore a cross-functional team that owns the customer journey is required. To be set for success in tackling the entire student journey holistically, this cross-functional team should have the appropriate sponsorship and governance to ensure changes can be implemented. Having a Student Experience Officer (SXO) lead this activity is a positive step, but universities that align SXOs to individual academic departments often neglect the fact that the student experience stretches far beyond the course. To have significant impact, the ambition should be to have a SXO who is empowered to shape all the elements of a compelling student experience.
In summary, the student experience is complex, spanning many years and encompassing everything from the quality of accommodation to the price of a pint at the local Student Union Bar. As the battle to attract students further intensifies over the coming years, offering students a compelling experience will become a baseline expectation; it’s vital that universities act now to remain competitive.