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Higher education: how to keep students happy and applications up

With tuition fees under the spotlight and application uncertainty for EU nationals, industry experts explain how universities and higher education businesses can maintain student intake and satisfaction.

Last updated: 27 Nov 2020 8 min read

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  • The Department for Education’s international education strategy aims to increase the number of international students to 600,000 annually by 2030
  • In order to boost student applications, higher education institutions are changing their offerings, providing better value for money and emotional support
  • Universities should stay abreast of employment trends and collaborate with industry to prepare graduates for employment

Legislative changes made by the government have allowed tuition fees in the UK to triple over the past 10 years. So, with the nation’s 2 million students paying more than ever for their qualifications, what can universities and other higher education (HE) institutions do to prevent satisfaction levels and application figures dropping?

Offer more flexibility where possible

Nexford University is among a growing wave of challenger institutions breaking down international barriers by offering fully online programmes. It’s an approach that’s providing students in the UK and elsewhere with an alternative route into higher education, and Nexford’s London-based founder, Fadl Al Tarzi, thinks it could be the way forward for a sector facing several challenges.

“Universities need to offer more transparency and a wider array of buying options,” he says. “That’s not really a radical idea either – it’s in their best interests to provide choice. Student enrolment numbers are going down and operational costs are increasing, but universities could reverse the trend by offering education plans that better fit students’ needs. Online courses are the perfect example.”

As well as removing the need for undergraduates to be in a specific physical location, distance learning gives prospective students control over how much they spend on their university education. “Imagine a world where students could reduce their yearly tuition by opting out of expensive new campus facilities,” Al Tarzi says. “This way, price points are determined by consumers who are operating in a responsive, dynamic marketplace.”

Embrace internationalisation

According to the Department for Education, more than 37,000 students from the EU applied for full-time undergraduate courses in 2019, a rise of almost 2% on the previous year. However, the number of international students who applied but then failed to take up their place at university has also risen. The Financial Times reported recently on a study by QS World University Rankings, which revealed that a third of European students were less likely to apply to UK universities because of Brexit and fears about rising tuition fees.

But the education department has just announced that EU nationals applying to English universities in 2020 will remain eligible for the same tuition rates as domestic students, which may encourage more applications. In Scotland, EU students are also eligible for the same tuition rates as their Scottish counterparts, which means free tuition for most.

Universities can also overcome the expected challenges of Brexit if they start to think beyond their traditional borders. That’s according to Dr Sonal Minocha, who, as well as being Nexford University’s chief partnerships officer and professor of management, has worked for a string of UK universities over the past 10 years, including Bournemouth.

“We need to redouble our internationalisation and adopt an even more global approach to education”Dr Sonal Minocha, chief partnerships officer and professor of management, Nexford University

“The UK might be exiting the EU, but UK higher education is not,” she says. “While we don’t yet know the implications or the full scale, we do know we’re looking at lost opportunities for revenue, research and recruitment – and in the face of the uncertainty, we need to redouble our internationalisation and adopt an even more global approach to education.”

Another thing that might help these globalisation efforts is the Department for Education’s recently launched international education strategy, which “sets out the government’s ambition for education exports and how it will support the UK education sector to access global opportunities”. The initiative aims to increase the value of education exports to £35bn per year and increase the total number of international students choosing to study in the UK higher education system annually to 600,000, all by 2030.

Understand the modern student

Universities should make sure they treat students as people rather than just numbers, according to Steven Spriggs, MD of London-based consultancy William Clarence Education.

“Students are paying higher tuition fees and as such need more support and service. They are buying a product and need to see value for money; as costs rise, their expectations increase, too,” he explains.

So where can universities add more value and support? “It could be a return on investment in terms of lectures, facilities or graduate prospects,” Spriggs says, “or from the student services offering support for stress, mental health and physical well-being.”

Mental health, in particular, is a pressing concern in the higher education sector, now affecting more than a quarter of students. There are calls for the problem to be recognised and tackled as a shared responsibility between the NHS and universities, which should offer their students proactive support in this area. Spriggs highlights Nottingham Trent University’s (NTU) annual well-being week as an example of what steps can be taken. “This event takes places a spotlight on student health and spreads messages on the support options available to anyone struggling.”

Collaborate and communicate

Students and staff should work closely together to build the ideal study environment, according to Harriet Dunbar-Morris, dean of learning and teaching at the University of Portsmouth. “Our student-experience committee, which has representation from academic and professional services staff and the students’ union, takes a data-driven approach to identifying areas for focus. A variety of internal and external institutional data is collated and analysed, and conclusions are drawn each year to prioritise enhancements for the delivery of an excellent student experience in the years ahead.”

Changes at the university are also driven by a co-created student charter and have included the introduction of consolidation weeks [half-term learning]; 24/7 opening hours of the library at key times and chat facility when the library is closed; laptop lockers for students; online submission of assignments and removal of student printing costs.

Keep up with employment mega-trends

Universities have an important role to play in filling the skills gap likely to open up in the future, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). “There will be a huge shift in skills over the next few years,” explains David Allison, founder of talent platform GetMyFirstJob. “Many of the fundamentals that have traditionally powered UK industry are going to change, and virtually every part of every STEM-related industry is going to be competing for the same skills.”

According to Allison, the first major shifts will revolve around power and data. “Any product that creates, stores or uses energy is going to change,” he says. “Another example is the way the world of data interacts with the physical world. As these worlds become more integrated, it is going to create demand for digital and analytical skills.”

These predictions are echoed by Chester Boothe, client relationship manager at tech and engineering recruitment specialist Optamor, who cautions that universities must be ready to facilitate this transition. “Workers in the future will need to learn how to access this data and determine how best to utilise it to make decisions that support the objectives of their organisations,” he says. “But our current education system is still focused on passing exams. The ability to analyse and be creative with data is sadly missing.”

Work closely with industry

When asked what universities can do to ease skill shortages, Allison emphasises the importance of industry collaboration. “It can be challenging at times because the cultures of academia and business are not always naturally aligned, but when partnerships are strong and long-term there are benefits all round,” he says.

“Universities benefit by updating programme content, using up-to-date case studies and exposing students and teachers to current methods and practices. These collaborations also offer access to research that is mutually beneficial.”

At Northumbria University, collaboration takes the form of ongoing consultation. “We hold regular interviews with ‘advisory panels’ of people in business life, from multinationals to third-sector companies,” explains associate professor in marketing Dr David Hart. “We talk to them about their challenges and business needs and if we are developing a new course, we run it by them to make sure we can produce the kind of graduates the industry needs.”

Allowing study time to overlap with real-world business is also a key part of Northumbria University’s approach, Hart explains: “Our most well-known collaboration initiative is our Business Clinic, which is home to our Consultancy Project. Students undertake a group-based piece of work where they are provided with a real ‘client’, which is a business facing a problem.

“The students work to produce a report and presentation to the company board with detailed recommendations on how they need to progress. We have seen examples of companies taking on these recommendations and in some cases taking on students to actualise their ideas.”

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