UK universities must offer an A* experience

Cailean Hargrave, Head of Education at Portal discusses why students are increasingly applying to overseas universities

Oxford and Cambridge are renowned as top UK universities, but The Independent recently reported that students were rejecting offers at prestigious institutions like these in favour of overseas alternatives. With the majority of UK universities now charging students £3,000 a year – and fees expected to rise further still – many candidates are choosing to study in countries such as the US, which not only have lower fees, but also offer academic advantages, making them better value for money.

Forward thinking students realise that the graduate job market is an increasingly competitive space, with employers seeking the most proficient skills sets. For this reason, students are looking for the best education in return for their financial investment, so that they can gain global skills and cross-cultural experience that will set them apart from their peers.

Students now have more choice when it comes to their learning career, and degree courses are increasingly being viewed as a product. Universities must deliver a top quality experience and stand up to competitors, or risk losing customers to more comprehensive alternatives that provide better value for money.

Also, beyond A-Levels, alternative pathways are now emerging for students. As a result, those who do opt for a university education have heightened expectations.

Making the grade

A strong driver for UK undergraduates who are thinking about studying overseas is the quality of academic learning available. Many foreign universities offer richer tuition and more contact time between students and lecturers than many UK universities, providing learners with a better return on their fees. This strong relationship between tutors and students makes for an individually tailored learning experience, providing greater engagement for undergraduates and a more satisfying academic package.

Universities in countries like the US also offer a broader range of subject options, as well as a curriculum that is structured so that students can wait until their final year before specialising in a subject, resulting in a more informed career decision and minimising drop-outs.

By comparison, UK students are faced with uncertainty and unsatisfying reports on the higher education system at home. Indeed, a new study by Which? found that roughly half of UK institutions are applying terms that allow them to change students’ courses once a degree is underway. The small print at one such university noted that fees were subject to an annual increase, which has since been deemed to breach the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations set out by the Competition and Markets Authority. Regardless of their prestige, UK universities can no longer take applications for granted in this way, and must appreciate that students’ priorities lie in return on investment and quality of education.

An A* experience

UK institutions need to act now in order to stop candidates feeling frustrated by not having their requirements met, and consequently looking overseas for better alternatives.  Higher education institutions must incorporate contact time, rich curriculums and personalised engagement to give students an academic experience that they consider to be cost effective. Universities also need to consider how to improve campus culture and tutor-student relationships to ensure that undergraduates are satisfied with the overall university package.

Graduate opinions shared via social media are quickly becoming a more important reflection of an institution than any league table, and can have a significant effect on reputation. To set themselves apart and demonstrate a forward thinking approach, institutions can use student feedback to form a cyclical process of learning and improvement to ensure expectations are being met. The latest technology can help here by facilitating this new approach to learning, and thus enable institutions to meet their students’ changing needs much more easily.

Candidates are increasingly savvy when it comes to attaining the skills required in today’s job market and considering how their time and money is most effectively spent. With international options now providing fierce competition, the UK higher education system needs to think intelligently about attracting applicants to UK universities by offering an exceptional student experience.

Cailean Hargrave is Head of Education at Portal, an education technology consultancy. Visit www.chooseportal.com for more.