Originally published: 09/07/2020 Update: 02/09/2020
Student retention continues to be a top concern for universities and one which has been intensified by ongoing conversations within the sector. Although the UK leads the way with a retention rate of 72%, up from 71% in 2020, many students will still fall through the cracks.
This is where student experience comes in. In higher education (HE), it should be at the heart of every decision. Unfortunately, student experience can often be sidelined in favour of league table performance and financial, or efforts can be made to improve experience without a true grasp on student needs. There are steps universities can take though, here are five essential and effective ways you can enhance the student experience.
- Innovate your processes
- Prioritise equity, diversity and inclusion
- Fight stigma and signpost guidance
- Flexibility and communication*
- Offer accessible reporting systems
1. Innovate your processes
It’s no secret there’s a need for collaboration across all departments of HE institutions to improve the quality of experience for the students. For high retention rates, positive student satisfaction and increased engagement, universities need to innovate their communication styles, their processes and the technologies they use to support them.
Whereas modern universities may find it easier to adapt to the modern world, older universities are more likely to be stuck with out-of-date or ‘traditional’ rules. There may be a tendency to resort back to 'the way things go' rather than looking to innovate and improve. This can halt development, and also engagement.
These inefficiencies impact the wider team and other departments, but most significantly, students have advanced their expectations, and universities need to keep up. Take time to evaluate, refresh and document existing policies and procedures to make everything student-focused.
Enhancing the student experience and bettering internal efficiencies starts with recognising where you can make improvements as ‘making do’ isn’t enough anymore. Are there any outdated processes in your institution holding on by a thread?
2. Prioritise equity, diversity and inclusion
Enhancing student experiences means making improvements so every student can reap the benefits. A tailored level of support is needed as current data shows it's not always guaranteed that marginalised, disabled, LGBTQ+ or students from disadvantaged backgrounds see their HE journey through to the end.
Students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning or other identities often choose to study at a university which they perceive to offer a safe space. More must be done to make campuses safe for marginalised students. You can do this by offering easy-to-read and accessible policies, better representation in student unions and more conversations and learning about diverse change makers we have in the world today - you can do more to ensure the future of HE is an inclusive one.
Racially diverse and inclusive environments need to be fostered to break down barriers to improving the student experience. Student services have such an important role to play in a student’s overall academic experience. The EHRC Report Universities Challenged found one in 20 students left their studies due to racial harassment, with inadequate support playing a large part.
Ensuring a climate of inclusion requires a whole-institutional response and can kickstart the catalyst of change - for all. There’s no overnight solution but institutions should take steps to make sure everyone feels welcomed and accepted.
Stagnant processes are expected with how slow adoption takes in the public sector. However, student services no longer have to accept this as fact. This is especially the case with the help readily available for HE institutions to quickly implement and transform processes for the benefit of the student experience.
3. Fight stigma and signpost guidance
One main cause of negative student experiences is the stigma and victim-blaming often attached to reporting incidents. It’s vital that victim-survivors are listened to, believed and appropriately supported, instead of feeling further victimised or traumatised by disclosing. In your role, you can do so much to break down barriers to reporting and improve the student experience.
The Office for Students’ (OfS) latest annual review highlighted mental health, hate crime and sexual misconduct as some of the biggest areas of concern. To help build a less stigmatised environment, education should be readily available for those who need to learn more or have concerns. There’s a clear need to offer more support and raise awareness of any initiatives in place and it’s something you can put in place to further revise how students experience university.
Acknowledging and addressing barriers to reporting, ensuring appropriate pathways and mechanisms are in place and incidents are recorded thoroughly may lead to an initial spike in reported numbers. But this is a wholly positive step in the right direction for your institution and will be more than advantageous later down the line.
To accelerate sector-wide progress, it’s crucial to continually highlight how you have services and resources which cater to everybody’s individual needs. In the longer-term, such improvements will increase student confidence in the institutional response and provide a clearer sense of the scale of any issues. In turn, this will enable institutions to assess the impact of preventive measures.
Any organisation that considers its reputation over the needs of victim-survivors will be left with a reporting process that isn’t being implemented properly or trusted. Regular and ongoing engagement with students is of critical importance as awareness-raising and campaigning activity can make people aware of institutional policies and procedures.
You can do more by offering training, hiring specialist staff, partnering with expert agencies and also looking into easily accessible online reporting tools made with this very purpose at its core.
4. Flexibility and communication
With universities returning to face to face teaching, yet the coronavirus continuing to pose a threat to our national health, students' feelings about returning to university will vary. If in person learning is made compulsory, communication of safety procedures should be clear and accessible.
However on top of this, it is important to consider the detrimental impacts this change can have. Certain students may see impacts to their mental health, any physical health issues could compound this.
How varying feelings are perceived between student groups, any tensions this may create, and how ensuing altercations will be managed should all fall within your existing harassment and behavioural misconduct policies. However this may all need to be communicated again so students have respect and consideration for others top of mind as they re-enter campus.
For universities taking a flexible approach to learning, this may resolve some of these issues however distance isn't a solution to harassment. It's important to note that students may still have issues; distance prevents support staff from being able to notice visible signs of issues with students, and reporting might suffer as if harassment isn't happening physically on campus. This leads us on to our final point...
4. Offer accessible reporting systems
There’s evidence, much of it generated by the notable efforts of the National Union of Students (NUS), which shows a significant number of students have experienced episodes of harassment, hate crime or sexual violence. Even more worryingly, their universities may not have always responded effectively - drastically affecting their overall student experience.
Manual reporting processes can sometimes be long-winded and lack anonymity, discouraging victim-survivors from reporting in the first place. A Revolt Sexual Assault study showed only 6% of victim-survivors of sexual violence reported it to their institution. This alarming number is in part down to students being fearful of the impact on their education, so many cases often go unreported and victim-survivors feel as if there’s a lack of support.
This figure would be significantly changed for the better if more organisations facilitated anonymous online reports. Investing in these solutions is crucial for more comprehensive risk management strategies, with stagnation being far more costly. Giving the power back to victim-survivors can subsequently inspire the confidence to come forward without worry, fostering an environment of positivity and progress.
The recording of incidents needs to become the standard across HE. Victim-survivors may fear an inappropriate or counter-productive response from their university which often results in low or no reporting. Others may not know how to report or may feel unable to. Some may try to submit a report but fall through the gaps because staff members are unaware of how to handle such circumstances.
The importance of having visible, automated and accessible reporting mechanisms in place for students can’t be undervalued. It’s critical for staff supporting students, including specialist roles who have been trained appropriately to resolve concerns. Ineffective communication of these resources is a missed opportunity to positively transform culture and ensure the student experience is a positive one.
That’s why we created Culture Shift. An award-winning online reporting platform designed to give all victim-survivors a place they can feel safe, supported and listened to. What makes it such an effective platform is our ability to offer anonymous reporting, education and signposted guidance at a time and place where victim-survivors feel most comfortable. We’re committed to achieving positive cultural change and are already working with many institutions in the UK to shift culture on their campuses.
This is just the start. The issues mentioned above don’t fully capture the diverse range of problems universities must seek to prevent and respond to effectively. These trends are opening the way for new approaches in higher education. It’s easier to be optimistic about bettering the student experience with these advancements coming into play. Want to learn more about how you revolutionise the student experience starting today?
Enhance the student experience in educational institutions and drive innovation
Change is a challenge wherever you go. But higher education institutions have always had the short end of the straw, especially when the nature of the sector is being pulled in many different directions. Our guide helps you identify outdated processes, communicate the advantages of innovation to your team and adopt more efficient processes beneficial for the student experience.
To do this, you need to be prepared to transform. That’s why we’ve addressed challenges you’ll face, increasing trends in higher education to watch and stats to be the catalyst. Get decision-makers involved and start exploring student-centric efficiencies today by downloading your guide.