PA Consulting Student 4.0: how universities can become student centric institutions

Student 4.0: how universities can become student centric institutions


Modern students have clear goals and high expectations, says Ian Matthias

Higher education institutions face fiercely competing priorities. They’re under pressure to rank highly in measures such as the teaching excellence framework (TEF), but at the same time students are more discerning than ever about what they expect from university. A recent survey of UK vice chancellors by PA Consulting found that 59 per cent felt that maximising TEF ratings was a top strategic priority, while 79 per cent prioritised student satisfaction over league table rankings. And now that National Student Survey ratings are likely to carry less weight in TEF ratings, the goalposts are changing all the time.  

What is certain is that today’s students are making decisions on higher education armed with far more information than previous generations, and seek greater certainty about what their university can offer them in terms of scholarship, employability, student experience and pastoral care. This shift towards more student-centric universities is one that has been happening for some time, albeit slowly, says Ian Matthias, higher education consultant at PA Consulting. PA Consulting describes this new relationship as ‘Student 4.0’ – students have clearer goals and higher expectations of the type of relationship they will develop with a university in order to achieve their ambitions.    

“Universities are now far more demand-led,” Matthias explains. “They’re trying to find and communicate their value proposition -- how they’re relevant to students’ lives, but realising at the same time that they can’t be all things to everyone.” Institutions are at different stages of this transition, he adds, and the most advanced are adapting large parts of their business models to become more student-centric.

A good example of this is Coventry University’s Add+vantage Scheme, which enables students to gain work experience and career development activities alongside their studies rather than as a separate element.

Northampton is an example of a university that has recognised its value proposition is in offering something unique, becoming the ‘go-to’ institution for those who want to work in or set up social enterprises.

A key part of developing that value proposition is realising that a university cannot meet every demand of every type of student, Matthias points out. “All too often, in the scramble for growth, looking for the best-fit students becomes a secondary consideration, and their experience falls short of what they were expecting,” he says. 

There are ways universities can remodel themselves at both a strategic level and in their day-to-day activities. “Some students want flexibility and inter-disciplinarity, but that may mean that as their experience crosses boundaries within universities, it becomes inconsistent,” explains Matthias. Taking this further, it will become less acceptable to simply have pockets of good practice dotted around institutions. “Good universities incubate good ideas and make them mainstream across the institution quickly,” he adds.

UCL’s Connected Curriculum, for example, demonstrates how an institution’s commitment to research-based learning can bring together the best of its research and teaching to enrich educational enhancement.

At the day-to-day level, simple things like streamlining the way in which universities communicate with students and offering workplace skills courses, can have an immediate and measurable impact on student experience. So too can re-evaluating systems and sorting out those that are ineffective. “We see too many places where resources are spent on low value administrative activity due to poor processes and systems. All too often we see academics involved in too much administration – universities need to reduce wasted effort so they can focus on value-adding activity such as coaching students and delivering great teaching,” Matthias advises.

Improving student outcomes will of course support universities’ ambitions to rank highly in TEF and other league tables. Universities such as Loughborough, which recently gained a gold TEF ranking but is also top of the THE’s student experience survey, realise that “strategies that achieve high satisfaction scores are always about the longer term, not chasing short-term boosts through attention-grabbing initiatives”, he adds. Loughborough has received plaudits for its students’ involvement in designing the curriculum, and the way its student union thinks as strategically about outcomes as the university itself.

Raising students’ expectations means universities are also under pressure to deliver – and keep delivering. Rolling out the red carpet to attract the best students will do little for student satisfaction scores if personal tutors are unavailable for months after term begins.

Universities also need to get better at joined-up use of data, argues Matthias. PA Consulting advocates using student data to create a single view of the student, avoiding a situation where a student has a known issue but the staff they see everyday are unaware.  

Against such as fast-changing backdrop, how can HE leaders hope to keep up with student expectations and still achieve recognition for research? The key is to focus resources on things that matter to the student, concludes Matthias, and to empower those closest to them to make decisions that will enrich their experience. 

More education insights from PA Consulting.

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