With the Australian government choosing to tie university funding to university performance from 2020, the student experience takes on a whole new level of importance.
While student satisfaction has always been important to improve retention, universities who don’t pay close attention to what students are saying will now be financially impacted. And in other countries, such as the UK and New Zealand, student satisfaction scores are closely monitored for institution rankings.
Fortunately, with the valuable Student Experience Survey and Graduate Outcomes Survey data, and coupled with their own internal surveys, university administrators have all the information they need to take action.
In this article, we break down the importance of the Student Experience, but more importantly, we give you the tools and skills to take action and outrank the competition.
The importance of the student experience
There are so many factors that can improve a student’s years attending an institution. It’s not just about getting the degree, but the journey towards it.
From student support to the teaching quality, institutions have a lot of control in how their students experience university life. This impact extends to how likely students are to stay in uni, or whether they seriously contemplate dropping out.
When asked in 2018, 19% of students had considered leaving university before graduating. There are many reasons why, including those that are unavoidable: family, a change in direction, travelling, or commuting issues. However, some factors are well within the control of institutions, including expectations not met (27 per cent of responses) and lack of academic support (22 per cent of responses).
The impact schools have on the student completion rate and future employment is one of the reasons the government of Australia has introduced Peformance-based funding. In their own words: “Performance‑based funding (PBF) is intended to ensure universities focus sufficient attention on the quality of their teaching and student support to achieve the best possible graduate outcomes.”
Universities that listen to the needs of their students are likely to see better word-of-mouth recruitment rates, increased retention and better student completion rates.
But in order to get any of that good positive feedback cycle in motion, you need to take action on what students are saying.
The five steps to driving action based on the student experience survey
1. Analyse the data
When you receive your results, the first thing you need to do is look at them. Don’t file that data away! Set time aside to take a deep dive - and encourage multiple functional groups to do the same (more on sharing the reports with other parts of the business below!). When analysing, consider the following three strategies to uncover the most actionable insights:
Look for outliers
It’s human nature to seek out the lowest scores to see what needs to be improved. That’s a great first step - identifying what your students aren’t satisfied with will give you a strong foundation for improvement.
However, you should also identify where your scores are the highest. These are your competitive differentiators - what makes your institution the best? As you create your student experience strategy for the year ahead, don’t let these scores drop.
The Student Experience Survey also includes a number of demographic data points including gender, domestic vs international students, indigenous status, their program of study, if they are the first family member attending post-secondary, etc.
Analysing your entire student population as one homologous group can hide some of the most important insights.
- Which subgroup (course, gender, study format, etc) are least satisfied with their access to student support systems?
- Which subgroup is most likely to have considered leaving your institution?
- Which subgroup rates the teaching quality the highest?
By asking questions of specific subgroups, you can identify specific areas where support and resources are lacking.
While the Student Experience Survey doesn’t include many areas for open responses, it’s important to review any qualitative feedback you do receive to gain more context. Using text analysis, you can turn that qualitative, unstructured data into quantitative insights. This is just as relevant for your internal surveys.
2. Improve visibility of key drivers of satisfaction and retention
Why do students do what they do? What specific qualities of their education make them satisfied, or less likely to return the following semester? These key drivers of satisfaction and retention are the “key” to making necessary changes.
Uncovering the key drivers and themes that are at the forefront of your student population’s mind is an important step in the analysis of survey results. Whether students are sharing their opinion on the SES or through other internal surveys, identifying these drivers will allow you to take action.
Using analytics software, like Kapiche, can help to not only uncover the key themes, but create easy to read and distribute reports to share that knowledge with each school or department.
Visibility through up-to-date dashboards and reports democratises valuable data. This makes it more accessible to the Heads and Deans that need to know the key drivers in order to take action to improve student satisfaction and completion rates.
3. Compare benchmarks
Every year, the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching are released in a comprehensive report. While businesses typically have to struggle for competitive analysis, educational institutions are blessed to have benchmarks provided to them annually.
These benchmarks can help you identify where your institution compares across the board. Are all Australian universities struggling to engage Indigenous populations, or just yours? How are other institutions faring when it comes to meeting rising student expectations of teaching quality?
If you are performing dramatically lower than other institutions in specific areas or subgroups, these are fantastic areas to start diving into to understand further and set the wheels in motion to improve upon.
4. Identify opportunities
Using the information gained through analysis and benchmarking, brainstorm potential initiatives that would improve your institution’s student experience, in addition to reducing attrition. For example:
- Implementing a mental health initiative on campus to encourage a better study/life balance.
- Creating “course structure” guidelines for undergraduate courses to develop more thorough syllabi.
- Investing in extended student support hours, potentially specifically marketed towards one subgroup.
Once you’ve identified a list of potential ideas, rank them based on cost and expected impact. Low-cost, low-effort initiatives that have a large impact on a poor-performing themes should be prioritised.
5. Assign accountability
While everyone plays a hand in elevating the student experience, nothing will be done if “everyone” is in charge of tasks. Appointing a point person (or small team) for each task will help with coordination and ensure that success is measured along the way.
Depending on the structure of your institution, your student experience coordinators might act in a variety of different functions. However, having both a strategic stakeholder (someone at the Dean or Assistant Dean level) and a ground-level coordinator can have the biggest impact. Strategic stakeholders will ensure that the necessary budget is allocated and that the project has visibility. Ground-level coordinators will be able to implement the necessary logistics and manage operations as needed.
6. Review and iterate as needed
Your student experience strategy needs to be an ongoing process to be effective - it can’t be a once per year meeting. As you make changes throughout the year, take time to collect additional feedback from students to see how those changes are affecting student satisfaction.
There are many different sources of feedback, besides the Student Experience and Graduate Outcomes Surveys. From social media to student / teacher chat logs to internal satisfaction surveys, keeping up to date on how students feel throughout the year will help you stay ahead of problems.
If you aren’t seeing results from your strategy, it’s okay to course correct and try something else. The more flexible and responsive you can be to your students’ needs, the more likely you are to see great results on your performance-based funding surveys.
Focussing on the student experience has never been more important
While student attrition and completion rates have always been high on the list of priorities, the new performance-based funding model makes the student experience critical. With over A$80 million of funding being decided based on the Student Experience Survey results, universities must act on the feedback of their students or feel the pain in their coffers.
Fortunately, dedication to the student experience pays off in more ways than one. Your institution will see happier students, reduced attrition and high student engagement, leading to an all-around better standing for your institution. The time for improving the student experience is now!