Since the introduction of tuition fees in UK higher education and a rise in them to a cap of £9,000, there has been increasing pressure on higher education institutions to deliver an education that is value for money. Students in England leave university with more debt than anywhere else in the English-speaking world, so education must pay dividends to make it all worthwhile. However, the rise in fees has not necessarily provided a better quality experience and research suggests that student dissatisfaction is growing year on year. So how can universities begin to redress the balance and deliver value for money to their customers?
The simple answer is for them to take a leaf out of our high street retailers’ books. With the introduction of fees came the birth of student ‘customers’. Customers must first be attracted, then retained and at every touch point with an organisation, they must also be delighted and their expectations met with an excellent user experience. Just as high-street retailers try increasingly to personalise our shopping experience with them regardless of by which channel we choose to buy (face-to-face or online), universities now find themselves in the same situation. Holding on to hard fought customers is key to the strategy – customer retention is always less expensive than acquisition and so universities must stop students from dropping out by deploying increasing levels of engagement.
Digitisation is having an enormous role to play in this, delivering the channel via which students – usually equipped with smartphones, iPads and other devices can engage with the institution. The admissions process is simply one touch point in the complete digital life cycle of a student, from recruitment through to alumni. Universities must begin to hook students in by using their digital presence, social media and even new technologies such as virtual reality as well as their reputations and of course, past results to better effect. Importantly, no one is immune to change; even those institutions with the greatest resources and strongest brands and reputations must adapt to deliver real world students to their places of work. It’s no longer simply a game of recruitment.
Digitisation isn’t just about making life easier on campus, although it undoubtedly does, it’s also about keeping students engaged with their tutors, their peers and in extra-curricular social activities that are part of the university experience and keep them coming back for more. It also delivers an excellent way for tutors to see who may not be engaging with online learning services and provide a red-flag to intervene before it’s too late.
So how can the digitisation of higher education help school leavers to find places in universities more easily, and how do those establishments instigate relationships via technology with their ‘prospects’ more efficiently? Should universities be attracting students much earlier – before they fill in their applications or reach the clearing system?
School leavers begin their search for institutions online months before they apply to their chosen uni or college. Those universities that create a unified digital culture right across their institution including via social media, VLEs, the university website, email, apps, intranets and all other content accessible on any device in real-time will attract the best students long before applications are filled in. This is the generation that uses social media ubiquitously – talking directly to them to entice them is easier than ever. It requires clear vision for what the future of our universities looks like based upon the technology available, and it will require significant resources to make those changes. Get it right, and each university’s brand will benefit from the changes, attracting school leavers to their digital doors months in advance of any formal applications.
Digitisation represents the most radical area of change impacting modes of learning and accessibility to knowledge. Students expect to be able to connect with everyone from admissions officers to alumni representatives – and they expect to be able to do it online whenever they choose. Making yourself available is key. Those universities that set their digital stalls out before the open days begin in earnest and personalise the user experience will undoubtedly raise their awareness, cement their reputations and attract the best students.