Despite the alarmist headlines on the BBC, the recently published HEPI and Which? survey on student academic experience shows that the vast majority students are satisfied with their university experience.
There are however three important points that are particularly relevant to university marketing and communications teams that I pick up on in this post.
1. University experience – expectation and reality
In the survey students were asked whether academic experience lived up to their expectations, and nearly one third stated that contact hours were fewer than they had expected. The other key outtake was their perception that the course was poorly organised.
Whilst there will be truth in both of those statements, we cannot take the statistics at face value. These results are symptomatic of the difference between university style self-directed study and the coached, directed study students are used to at school or college.
Coming from the guided world of college or school it may well appear by virtue of contrast that their university course has fewer contact hours than expected, and that it is less organised (or less structured) than their previous academic experience. That is not to say that there is necessarily anything wrong with the way the university is delivering it – it is purely a miss-match between the students’ previous experience and the university set up.
University marketing departments need to ensure that contact hours and modes of delivery are clearly explained in course literature, and that the difference to school is highlighted. Clear information will enable students to make that transition from the structured school environment to the university experience.
2. Perception of value for money
The survey does highlight concerns around value for money, and without entering into a political debate about student fees. There has been a clear increase in the percentage of students who thought that their courses represented poor value for money compared with students who had enroled at university when the lower fees were applicable.
Assuming that fees stay as they are, it is the responsibility of organisations to ensure that they provide and demonstrate value in their interactions with students. This should result in students understanding and appreciating the wealth of knowledge and support universities can offer.
The Generation Y perception is that information is freely available online, which presents the knowledge providers at universities with a challenge to demonstrate the enhanced value of course content. For instance, students need understand that the lecture notes added to their VLE were created by their learned professor based on years of experience, and are therefore more valuable than information they can access via Google or Wikipedia.
Otherwise students might wonder what the value of going to university is at all, if all information is available via the Internet anyway.
Universities need to convey to students that there is added value from physically attending a lecture, perhaps through additional content or sharing of ideas that they wouldn’t get through reading the lecture notes later. Without explicitly explaining this to students we can’t expect them to ‘get it’ as it differs so much from their earlier educational experiences.
3. The importance of student communications
Communications with students whilst they are at university also play an essential role in conveying value. If the organisation does not highlight it, how will students know about the extensive investments in campus facilities that are taking place up and down the country. Tell them what is happening and how it will benefit them personlally whilst they are at your university.
HOW you communicate is as important as WHAT you communicate. Sending too many emails becomes counterproductive, and other channels such as posters or social media have their own pros-and cons. Each has its place for different types of messages, and there are few hard-and-fast rules. However, a clearly thought out comms plan is essential if you want students to understand the value that is all around them.
I’ve heard students in focus groups saying they would have liked to have known about a particular investment, even though the internal university department believed it had been communicated. The lesson to learn from that is that broadcasting is very different to communicating. To be an effective communicator the message needs to have been heard and understood.
The sector needs to accept that students now see themselves as customers paying a high fee and expect to see value in return. Value, in terms of knowledge, experience and investment are all around them whilst at university, so it is our role to make that value more apparent to them.