How do you create the very best student experience?

It is vital to think about ways of improving the student experience in higher education. Rebecca Paddick asks the roundtable, what can universities do to create the best student experience possible?

Rountable contributors:

  • Brian Norton, co-founder and CEO, Future Finance
  • Felicity Miller, student academic experience manager, Nottingham Trent University
  • Rob Moyle, operations director, Campus Living Villages
  • Francis Campbell, vice-chancellor, St Mary’s University, Twickenham

What do you offer that helps improve student experience, and boost student recruitment and retainment?

Felicity Miller: NTU is a teaching-intensive university and we pride ourselves in being one of the most employment-focused universities in the country. In our new strategic plan we commit to every student having an assessed work placement. We focus on the student as a whole, personalising learning to meet different needs and providing an extensive extra-curricular programme of activities. We continue to innovate and use technology to enhance the student learning experience.  We also have an award-winning student dashboard. This helps tutors work closely with students, identifying at an early stage any issues they might be experiencing.

Rob Moyle: Successful student recruitment and retainment requires a flexible approach and an ability to adapt to changing student needs. Campus Living Villages (CLV) offers students a ‘home away from home,’ which focuses on ensuring they can make the best of their time while in higher education. Research indicates that students living on-campus or in university accommodation generally perform better in their studies so the offering of quality accommodation remains an essential draw.

The factors students take into consideration when investing in higher education are no longer limited to the quality and location of their selected course or university. They are making an investment in a life experience as well as an education; they want living spaces which will complement their course selection and improve their chances of success at university. They expect a genuine homely feel to their surroundings and greater opportunities to develop their personal growth during their pursuit of academic success.

Francis Campbell: At St Mary’s we offer a strong and welcoming community of students and staff who are attracted by the high standards of teaching across the wide range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses we offer. In the Guardian’s 2016 University Guide we achieved a 90% teaching satisfaction – a top 20 ranking.

Students are also attracted by our high graduate employability – we are ranked eighth in the country for graduate employment at 96% according to HESA. This is particularly important since the tuition fee increase will mean that students are looking for better value for money and return on investment.

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Investing in the campus can improve student experience

Do you have any recent developments at your campus which best show your commitment to improving the student experience in higher education?

FM: We continue to invest in both our state-of-the-art learning facilities and our staff. Over the last 10 years we have invested more than £350m into our facilities, supporting the combination of inspiring teaching and new technologies. We continuously review all aspects of the student experience from student timetables through to the quality of every module taught. We use pioneering teaching methods, supported by cutting-edge research and strong links with industry to facilitate an intellectually stimulating learning experience.

We work closely with our Students’ Union to make sure the university experience is the best it can be, this year our Students’ Union (NTSU) has been named Higher Education Students’ Union of the Year 2015 by the National Union of Students (NUS).

RM: As part of a consortium with GRAHAM Construction, Kier Project Investment and Equitix, we have delivered Peel Park Quarter for our long-standing higher education partner, the University of Salford. This 1,300-bed property, we believe, sets the bar in terms of quality, design and overall student experience.

Our collaborative approach with our university partner has enabled us to pool our expertise to create a new, £81m state-of-the-art living option, directly on campus, featuring enhancements which will truly elevate the everyday lives of residents. Peel Park Quarter opens its doors to students in September 2015, housing 1,367 brand new, private, en-suite bedrooms each with a 3/4 bed. A range of room sizes including standard, grand-standard, deluxe, grand-deluxe and shared are available as part of cluster flats consisting of 4–10 persons.

Finished to an exceptionally high standard, each en suite bedroom features floor-to-ceiling windows allowing students to fully appreciate picturesque views of the historic Peel Park, situated adjacent to the property. Every aspect of student living has been considered in the design of the rooms, which feature cleverly hidden storage solutions and access to free 50mb Wi-Fi.

Over the last 10 years we have invested more than £350m into our facilities, supporting the combination of inspiring teaching and new technologies

Communal social spaces feature pool tables and other games facilities, while lounges have SkyTV and the latest games consoles to help students unwind and relax after a hard day studying. An on-site cinema also allows students to enjoy the latest blockbuster movie with friends, from the comfort of their own home. Health and wellbeing are also high on our agenda, with an on-site gym and basketball court nearby, as well as kitchens constructed to help develop healthy eating and culinary skills, while strengthening social relationships. Students can also get their cultural fix with gallery space in the reception area. Other amenities at the campus include professional meeting spaces, fully equipped with the latest AV facilities.

These spaces will allow the students to develop confidence within a professional setting, and a particular set of life skills that are vital when entering the world of work. Peel Park Quarter offers a luxury environment in which students can live, learn and grow – the key ingredients to a positive student experience and the foundations underpinning every CLV student property across the globe.

FC: In recent years we have invested in our campus to improve students’ experiences. This includes a state-of-the-art learning resource centre, internet cafe, open-access IT suites and a wide range of services to support studies. We are also set to open a £6m new library development in September having already opened a Law Library, a cutting-edge Media Arts Suite and state-of-the-art Strength and Conditioning Suite.

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Byron Students’ Union, Nottingham Trent University

Are we doing enough to ensure that international students have the best possible experience here in the UK?

Brian Norton: Unfortunately, no, we are actually making life even more difficult for international students here in the UK. One of the hallmarks of the UK’s higher education system is its internationally diverse student body which ensures that the UK remains competitive in terms of research and innovation, particularly in subjects like maths, engineering and science. In addition, international students that remain here after graduation frequently become skilled labourers and an integral part of what drives the UK economy.

In spite of the obvious benefits of having students with a range of nationalities studying in the UK, new immigration rules have increased the amount of savings these students will need when they arrive here. Foreign students will now need to prove that they have enough money to live here for up to nine months, or the length of their university course. This may seem like a difficult requirement to meet, particularly for foreign students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and the danger is that this will put students off from applying to study in the UK. There are funding options available, however, and it’s important for international students to be aware of all of them.

RM: The majority of students coming to live in our developments for the first time will be experiencing a transitional period in their life. Moving away from home combined with the exposure to a completely new environment can be both exciting and daunting. International students will experience an even bigger change in their lives, as not only are they moving to start their future studies but they are also moving to a new country and, potentially, culture. 

We therefore take extra care and consideration for our new arrivals to ensure they have the smoothest of transitions from their old home (wherever that may be) to what we hope will be considered their new home. We achieve this in a number of ways, and put a particular emphasis on the arrival experience, to ensure that residents do not feel isolated and have the confidence and encouragement to make friends and meet new people. We also run a vplus programme where students can socialise and explore more of the UK together. Our teams at every Village are integral to the creation of a ‘home away from home’ and we also apply a personal approach to each and every student.

International students that remain here after graduation frequently become skilled labourers and an integral part of what drives the UK economy

FM: NTU’s international students enjoy a wide range of events and activities. From the moment they first make an enquiry to NTU we go out of our way to make sure they have the best experience; ranging from a meet and greet at the airport to access to the Global Lounge which holds regular events celebrating the cultures of our international students. The International Office also host a range of trips and events throughout the year, and provide opportunities for international students to get work experience within the international office and also as international ambassadors. In the latest NSS survey international students reported very high satisfaction levels, comfortably above the sector average and higher even than our UK students.

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Direct investment in universities both benefits students and the economy more broadly

Now the cap on student numbers has been lifted, can universities realistically offer a high-quality experience to all students? How?

BN: It will be challenging but not impossible. The UK has world-class universities and at the heart of those universities are its teaching staff and academics. I fully believe we have the capacity to deliver high-quality education to every student accepted into higher education. However, in order to do so universities will need the capital to invest in better facilities, teaching and research projects. Not only will direct investment in universities benefit the students attending these institutions, but it will also benefit the economy more broadly. In 2011–12 alone, universities across the UK generated a total of £73bn in output. They directly contributed over £36.4bn to UK GDP, and off-campus expenditure of international students and visitors contributed a further £3.5bn according to a report on the Economic Role of Universities. Investing in universities is therefore paramount the UK’s education system, both for the students attending and for national productivity.

FM: I believe that even though the cap on student numbers has been lifted it doesn’t mean that all universities will recruit more students. At NTU we have reviewed our course portfolio and continue to assess the optimum number of students for each course to ensure a high-quality experience for all. So yes, I do think it is possible, there are different types of HEIs that cater for different students. We know our institutions and what our strengths are.

RM: A recent review of the Australian market, where capping was lifted in 2012, indicates that there has been a growth in online and off-campus education. The removal of the cap on student numbers in the UK can only help to inspire new ways of learning, closely linked to the rise of technology and the demand from students for increased choices. We’ve already seen the development of more short-term courses in broader subject ranges, as well as an increase in online modules with generous deadlines.

These options provide tangible solutions for long-distance students or those studying part-time, such as working parents, and therefore enhance rather than inhibit the student experience for these groups. The definition of a ‘high-quality’ student experience has consequently changed to meet the criteria set by actual students. They expect choice, flexibility, access and support. As a student accommodation developer, it is important for us to evolve with the market and the modes of study presented by our university partners. We are already offering short-term contracts to residents throughout the year and looking at other ways in which we can be flexible for students who aren’t committed to 42 or 50 week contracts.

FC: Lifting the cap clearly presents some challenges but it is also an opportunity. Tougher competition means universities will have to work harder to attract students. St Mary’s is a University with high ambitions. We’re seeking to expand and have big plans for the future. Increasing student numbers is a key part of that and we are confident our plan will not only deliver the numbers to match our ambitions, but also provide the same quality of experience to all through continuous investment in our campus.  

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St Mary’s University, Twickenham

If student fees were to rise again, how might students’ expectations change in the future?

BN: Students need to be informed about all the funding options available to them, government-subsidised and commercial, so that they can make good decisions that are right for them. If fees were to rise again, ensuring students are aware of all their options will become even more important.

There is already a clear demand from students in higher education in the UK for commercial finance, either in the form of a top-up to loans available from the Student Loan Company, or as their main source of funding. Our most recent research suggests that 21% of UK students in higher education feel that the costs of living and tuition make them worry that they won’t be able to afford to finish their studies. If fees were to rise again, I think we’d see both a growing demand for commercial sources of funding and we may also see a drop off in the number of university applicants if they feel that the costs involved are prohibitive to pursuing education.

The introduction of student fees has clearly created a more consumerist culture in higher education

FM: In my opinion I believe that student expectations will continue to rise. That is why we as a University continuously seek feedback from students through a number of different ways and actively seek their input into changes that will impact the student experience. The new strategic plan for the University sets out how we are striving to ensure that we provide the best student experience for our students and to equip them with the necessary knowledge and skills for their future career plans.

FC: The introduction of student fees has clearly created a more consumerist culture in higher education. Students who have a personal financial stake in their education want to know that they are getting value for money. Above all they want to know that the investment is worth it. That’s why employability is so important and in that area St Mary’s excels, with 96% of our students finding employment or further study within six months of graduating.

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At St Mary’s, 96% of students find employment or further study within six months of graduating

Finally, how would you sum up the best student experience?

BN: Part of our loan scheme involves asking students to make small monthly loan repayments while they are still in higher education. This helps get them used to making regular payments, but I think factoring in your degree to your monthly budget even in a very small way, also helps to underscore the value of education. We want students to be able to make the most of their educational experience without worrying constantly that they will be unable to afford to complete their degrees, but we also hope that they will come away from their experience with an appreciation of how rewarding higher education can be both personally and financially.

FM: It is difficult to sum up what the best student experience is, as it is so multi-dimensional. Therefore I would say that the best student experience would be learning and teaching plus life experience which exceeds a student’s expectations.

RM: The best student experience is one that is tailored to each person’s individual needs and aspirations. It’s studying a course you love, enjoying a living environment which feels like home, having access to the technology needed, feeling the presence of a reliable support system, and having the freedom to be yourself within a social group that appreciates you. At CLV, we help our residents to discover each of these elements by introducing them to an environment designed to nurture their academic success and personal growth. We don’t just provide a roof and a bed – we provide a home.

FC: While St Mary’s offers excellent teaching, it is not just about equipping students with an academic qualification and a path to employment, important though that is. It is also about social development.

Our vibrant and thriving Students’ Union provides recreational and developmental activities for students such as Sports Clubs and Societies and coordinates all of the major events on campus throughout the academic year. Our students therefore leave St. Mary’s as rounded people having enjoyed the benefits offered by our dedicated teaching and support staff and a very inclusive social environment.

Video: Ian Dunn and Jonathan Shaw from Coventry University share their expertise in enhancing the overall student experience.


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