Seven ways to improve university student experience

12 April 2023 4 min. read
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A recent report from consulting firm Nous Group examined how universities can improve student experience – which comprises academic experience, administrative support services, and student life. The firm’s research drew on surveys and interviews with post-secondary school executives, student experience leaders, and students in Australia, Canada, and the UK.

Universities still have room to improve on student experience, with a 2022 CUSC survey of Canadian first-years finding that over half said their overall expectations were met but not exceeded.

Nous Group’s report highlighted seven steps universities can take to achieve an outstanding student experience amid increasing financial and operational pressures.

1) Start with understanding

Universities shouldn’t look to deliver a one-size-fits-all approach to student experience. Schools need to understand their student body, which is increasingly racially and socio-economically diverse, mature, and predisposed to online learning.

Schools can collect high-quality data to better understand students and their needs, deliver more targeted support, and track student behaviour to see if it matches their stated preferences.

They can also look to co-design university offerings to better meet student preferences and inclusion. Most universities currently use a consultative approach for student experience design.

Rate the effectiveness of your institution’s current  student support services

2) Approach the experience holistically

Viewing and measuring student experience (academics, support services, and student life) as a whole is critical to ensuring effectiveness and return-on-investment.

Academic staff remain the cornerstone of student experience, with approachable and accessible academic staff ranking foremost in students’ perception of their own belonging. Academics are also most likely to realize students may be experiencing educational or wellbeing issues.

Wellbeing is a growing student priority, with a recent Salesforce report noting that students no longer see the university as solely a place of learning, but also a holistic support system.

Universities find it difficult to accurately measure student experience initiatives, including defining what student experience means, tracking changing needs and expectations, and determining which initiatives contribute positively.

3) Technology is a cornerstone

Viewed as a critical enabler for student experience, most schools have increased their investment in technology for support services – including CRM systems and other digital tools for students to access information and guidance 24/7.

Self-service tools are particularly effective, with over half of universities that provided self-service rating their admin services as very good or excellent.

How involved are students in the design and delivery of an outstanding student experience

4) Initiatives must be right time, right place

With study participants noting the funding for student experience areas has declined post-Covid, leaders need to tailor and deliver services to different cohorts in a more targeted manner. This means using student data to identify the best ways to provide proactive support and communicate information. A key avenue is personalized communications through widely used social media channels and personalized applications.

5) Make astute use of third parties

Tightening budgets can also mean more outsourcing. Many universities partner with specialist third-parties to provide services in counselling, orientation, careers advice, employability services, recruitment, and housing.

The use of third-parties is set to rise, with over one-third of respondents expecting to increase investment in the next two to three years. For some institutions, this can be framed as concentrating on core value areas, such as teaching.

6) Centralized delivery is effective

Nous Group’s research found student service operating models that had functions, activities, and teams centralized around student experience and success were most effective. This model creates operational efficiencies by establishing clear responsibilities to minimize duplication; creating handover points between functions to minimize data transfer loss; and increasing the ability to share resources across clusters to meet demand surges.

7) Capability and culture matter

A culture of student success is replacing the historical compliance culture, according to Nous. Compliance culture focuses on design systems to be compliant rather than considering what makes it easy for the student.

A key factor in driving this shift is staff skills and capabilities, which were identified as a main barrier to providing outstanding student experience. Data management and literacy, interpersonal skills, and mental health support were identified as the most important capabilities.