If you take a quick look at the headlines on student experience at UK universities, you’d quickly spot that there is much work to be done. The HEPI/Advance HE 2018 Student Academic Experience Survey showed that less than 10% of students said their academic experience was as expected. At the same time, the recentWonkHE research showed a strong link between loneliness, friendships and involvement with activities on campus.
It makes sense that student mental health and wellbeing are likely to influence retention, progression, attainment and graduate outcomes. Student experience includes both the academic and personal; they intertwine to create the whole. But this means it’s almost impossible to improve on the academic experience without also considering the much wider student experience.
We can’t remove all of the challenges that students will face whilst at university. But the evidence suggests that there’s a significant expectation gap between what they imagine their student life to be, and the reality of life on campus. So what we can do to better prepare our young people for their experience as a student?
The first step is to listen to our students, ideally through a formal and regular programme of research. We need to understand the realities of the student experience; the highs, lows and everything in-between. Ideally this should be qualitative insight from focus groups, interviews or even digital storytelling (we recommend a look at the work done by Dr Liz Austen at Sheffield Hallam in this area to capture the full diversity of experiences whilst still allowing us to identify the common themes that link these together.
Once we have this, we can use it in two ways. Firstly, to pinpoint those areas where we can and should take positive steps to better meet expectations. And secondly, to use this insight to change the expectations of future students. This means including the real story of university life – the good, the bad and the ugly – in our marketing content. We know our target audiences want us to be authentic in how we talk about our institutions – proven by the rise in popularity of review sites such as Student Crowd – so the final step is extending this to how we share stories of student experience. This means showing the reality of student life alongside the curated Instagram pictures of the campus under snow, or the glossy student testimonials that feature in prospectuses.
Applicants tell us that they want to know how many people will be in their tutorials, what ‘independent study’ really means in practice, how much money will they need for bus fares and what should they do if they haven’t found any new friends by the end of Fresher’s Week. This ‘trivia’ of student experience is actually what brings it to life and makes it a reality for an applicant. This means they can make better, well-informed decisions about which university to choose, which subject to study and where to live. And once they’ve arrived, they should also be better prepared for what lies ahead, with some of those expectation gaps well and truly filled.
If you need support in working with your students to better understand their experience – from student journey mapping to capturing feedback to inform specific planning or marketing decisions, we can help. Contact the Halpin team on 020 3930 8303.
Rachel Killian is a Senior Consultant for Halpin Partnership – the home of experts in higher education governance, fundraising, marketing and strategy.