Leading the student experience

The prospect of undergraduate fees of £9000 in England has focussed attention on to the student experience. A recent event run by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education brought together delegates from a wide range of roles within universities to discuss the topic and share experiences.

It was recognised that an impact of higher fees will be increased expectations of both teaching and facilities. Janet Beer, Vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, noted that students wanted clear definitions of what to expect from their courses and would not tolerate second rate facilities. This will certainly present a challenge to IT Directors who will need to ensure that the facilities and services they provide meet the needs of the student body whilst their budgets are declining in real terms.

The discussion and presentations throughout the day made it clear that HEIs will need greater engagement with their students at a broad range of levels. It was reassuring to hear Beer’s positive comments on the role the Students Union had played at Brookes in the discussions on the level of student fees. She and other speakers noted that students were engaging with their institutions in a more professional way than in the past and were fully contributing to debate and discussion. It was important to create organisations where the student is listened to and to deploy a range of techniques to get feedback. This is one area where social media can play a role through simple mechanisms such as the use of Twitter by service departments through to bespoke social networks with chat rooms and bulletin boards. Ben Whittaker from the NUS observed that early engagement with the future students in their schools would allow HEIs to gain a better understanding of the next generation of students. Again this is an area where social networks can play a role.

Improving the student experience cannot, however, be done on the cheap. It was clear that the institutions need to invest in the estate, services and infrastructure but this should not just be restricted to central facilities; academic departments will also need to ensure that their facilities meet the expectations of their students. Investment is only part of the solution – it needs to be backed up by commitment. The policies and actions aimed at the student experience will need to be understood and followed by all those who come into contact with students across the institution whether they are a professor, help desk advisor, student finance officer or departmental secretary. And it is equally important to ensure that the same principles are applied to the whole of the student body and that groups such as distance learners are not left out. This is not a quick process. The presentations from Queen Mary and the University of Sunderland both described programmes of work that started some years ago. With the first intake of £9000 fee paying students just eighteen months away, many do not have the luxury of time.

It is important to be able to demonstrate that the measures being put in place are improving the student experience. Institutions need to make sure that they make use of the information available to them wisely to inform decisions. They should not just look to deliver against the indicators without embracing an overall philosophy of improving the student experience. There will be a need for collaboration between CIS departments and their planning colleagues to ensure that appropriate measures are defined and correctly interpreted.

There were a number of references to institutions having a senior member of staff dedicated to ‘the student experience’. Whilst it is important to recognise that with many students in England at least paying £9000 a year for their courses the student experience will be critical, it is equally important that it cannot be a specialist discipline. Like IT, it should be embedded in everything that the institution does and whilst there will be specific policies and strategies designed to enhance the student experience, it is perhaps as much about ensuring that the student is considered in all aspects of the institution’s operations. IT has a critical role in delivering quality services to students. Consequently IT Directors need to ensure they are involved in those activities and initiatives that enhance the student experience and ensure that their staff are committed to putting the student first.

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