Wilma Smythe

Going beyond Government policy and TEF rankings and adapting to student needs using a level of market sophistication will help HE institutions achieve their objectives.

When I think of the current debate around the marketisation of HE, the theme of meeting student needs could help square the circle between public good and markets.

Students have a right to expect more from HE

Imagine what the world would be like without higher education (HE) – no knowledge sharing, no research, no student communities. It’s easy to see that it would be less civilised and less progressive – perhaps taking us back to pre-Enlightenment times when social development was often driven by beliefs and superstitions and less by reason and evidence.

Yet we pretend that HE is a personal choice. University students have to take out large loans for an education, as if they were the only beneficiaries – when the world as a whole reaps benefits at social, economic, cultural and environmental levels.

It is because of the link between HE and these effects that some provocateurs suggest that student fees in the UK should be considered as ‘tax’ rather than ‘student debt’.  But if student loans were taxes on graduates, we would be asking those graduates who don’t yet pay them to stump up simply for the possibility to have higher future earnings – recent evidence suggests that a degree is no longer a guarantee of higher earnings and future scenarios paint an uncertain job market shaped by AI and robotisation.

From teaching quality to student centricity

There’s no doubt that students should expect a return at individual level.  This is the ethos behind HE reform. However, the current political argument for delivering towards student needs consists of a shift of focus to teaching quality and not research — when the challenges are greater.

On the one hand, there is no question that there is a mental health crisis among students. In our own survey with university students in the UK (n=496), 19 per cent of them felt lonely and alienated, 52 per cent got very anxious about their future, and 58 per cent worried about the tuition fees and not getting enough value from university. Most importantly, in the academic year of 2016-17, ninety-five students committed suicide. Not surprisingly just in June 2018 Sam Gyimah, the Universities Minister, issued an ultimatum to vice-chancellors to tackle students’ mental health.

On the other hand, the current HE service offer does not seem to fully engage today’s students. The same survey shows a prominent intention-action gap whereby while 74 per cent of students believe that work experience during university is important, only 45 per cent are looking for internships and work placements and only 44 per cent use their university’s career service. More worryingly, of those who used their university career service, only 1 in 4 believed that it cared for their needs as a student and 1 in 3 say that they have tried using it but have not got much response.

In many ways, HE is still adapting to what the private sector did over two decades ago when looking to shift from a producer to a consumer focus. Without the availability of personalised services, at one time previous generations easily adapted to the university offering. In contrast, used to personalisation and immediate gratification, students now expect service offerings to adapt to them as is the case in other areas of their lives.

How can HE institutions become more student-centric?

Student centricity is about recognising that, while there are wider beneficiaries from HE, it is the students, for now, who have a right to expect services that meet their needs. This rejects ‘one-size-fits-all’ in favour of recognising student differences both in terms of personality and learning styles.

Usually, students don’t question the range of university services because they know nothing different. But when students are allowed to express their opinions (as they did during our own qualitative research), they believe that there’s much more that universities should offer – from: a) more personalised career services to help them figure out how to approach the beginning of their career; to b) better use technology during lectures with a view to tailoring teaching to different learning styles; and c) more guidance and personalised support from professors.

Responding to these needs will increase the adoption of services – ultimately enhancing the overall life, employability and entrepreneurship skills that students require.

The following three key pillars will help HE institutions embark on student centricity:

1. Gaining better insight to understand different student needs

Students have different needs, attitudes, behaviours, and expectations about work. Surveys that treat students as the sum of all individuals and simply deliver totals (for example, 70 per cent of students have a good experience) are simplistic and unrealistic because they do not recognise the differences in needs, attitudes, and behaviours among subgroups.

One way to be able to understand student group differences is through the use of a student market segmentation. Segmentations allow to identify groups of students who are similar within themselves but different among each other. They can guide universities both terms of overall business strategy (to plan future direction based on meeting the needs of different target segments); marketing strategy (in order to attract and retain target audiences that best align to the particular offer of a university); and service delivery (to design tailored and more engaging services that meet the needs of different segments).

An example of a strategic market segmentation which outlines student differences in terms of needs, attitudes, behaviours and interests can be seen here. Also, our own report “Market Segmentation: Avoiding a one-size-fits-all education” describes the segments we identified via our own research and how to treat them differently in order to attract them, engage them with the university offer, and retain them in detail.

Student segmented strategies for marketers and service managers

Using market segmentation will allow universities to understand which segments they attract in relation to the wider market and compare this with the segments already on campus – helping to adapt marketing and services to the needs of the wider market.

2. Develop measures that reflect the full range of student needs: To focus solely on student metrics such as student experience, employability, future employee income, and dropout rates means that we homogenise the whole student community by implying that their motivations and aspirations are all the same.

With segmentation, student outcome measures can also reflect the different aspirations of different student segments – recognising that some will happily have a job where they just keep learning, others will be career-driven and aspire to high earnings, and others will only aspire to work for an organisation that has an impact on society.

3. Deliver the right services through the right channels with the right messages:  Delivering tailored messages that take into account the different needs, attitudes and behaviours and doing so through the channels that students use will resonate well with students, making them more likely to engage in the services offered by the university.

In our market segmentation example, the ‘Undecided’ group (who are highly anxious and uncertain about past choices) will need support with mental health and career planning – and our channel usage insights into this group suggest that they will be easily reached via Facebook and Snapchat; whereas the ‘Positive and Determined’ (career-driven but with little interest in getting work experience due to their optimism bias) will need to have flexible study options to integrate work experience during their studies – these may be best presented in their most used channels: Facebook and Whatsapp.

Whether you are for the marketisation of universities or believe they should be treated as a public good, understanding students’ needs in depth is the missing piece in the debate. A good level of insight into students will help achieve student centricity which will in turn be a win-win for students, universities, employers and society as a whole.

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