The number of complaints about universities in England and Wales by students has gone up every year for the last six years – and is expected to go up again this year, when tuition fees increase to up to £9,000 per annum.
The more students and their families find themselves paying for higher education, the more like consumers they’ll feel – and act. A consumer–supplier relationship is not like a student–educator relationship. Consumers are entitled to expect value for money from suppliers. Consumers paying £9,000 a year for a service people still remember getting for free are likely to be more demanding than most.
Which puts higher education institutions (HEIs) in a difficult spot. The increased tuition fees are covering cuts in government funding, so although this year’s crop of students will pay significantly more than last year’s, and expect a comparable improvement in the service they receive, HEIs won’t necessarily have any extra money in the pot to deliver that improvement.
It’s the same problem everyone’s facing at the moment – how do you do more with less? – only writ large and very much in the public eye.
Ask students and their families what value for money looks like, and chances are they’ll suggest increased contact time with staff. What that translates to is a personal service. Students want to feel like their HEIs are taking an interest in their individual wellbeing.
One way to do that without – or in addition to – increasing contact time is through intelligent use of content. From the course descriptions that prospective students use to decide what to study, through bulletins about events on campus, to the content of the courses themselves, most HEIs are already producing the right kinds of content – but is the student body always aware of it? Is it being produced in their preferred formats and distributed in their preferred channels?
HEIs need to be offering high quality content to students and their parents, across a broad range of mediums, websites, email and social media, for example, in order to engage them and make them feel as though they are getting a high quality service from the word go.
Websites need to look good and most importantly, they need to be easy to navigate as they are the first port of call for many prospective students. A website is a reflection of your brand and if your homepage is cluttered and difficult to navigate – what does that say about your institution? There is plenty of research that suggests if a user can’t find the information they need quickly and easily, they will more than likely hit the back button without enquiring.
On top of this, HEIs need to be continually adapting their approaches to teaching, responding to innovations in online technology, including mobile devices and cloud computing which are changing how young people work and socialise. HEIs need to be using more interactive methods to meet students’ needs, using online spaces and interactive technology in lectures and seminars, creating a more collaborative learning environment.
Offering high quality content, in a variety of formats, can positively influence the users’ perception of your brand, which couldn’t be more important for HEIs in this climate.