Students as Prosumers

Prof. Amir M. Sharif, Acting Head of Brunel Business School, looks at how to improve student experience and engagement

The UK’s 2014 National Student Survey (NSS) which tracks student satisfaction of universities across the country, has shown an overall increase in student satisfaction over the eight years of just over 5%. Given the broad range of metrics involved across a range of themes (Teaching, Assessment and Feedback, Academic Support, Organisation and Management, Learning resources, Personal Development, Student Union and Overall satisfaction), this is no mean feat. Given also the combined pressures on the UK higher education sector of increasing student fees, nominal pay increases with increased workloads it is perhaps even more of an achievement. 

But how and in what direction should UK universities pursue and deliver improvements upon student experience and student satisfaction? Moreover, within and across subject disciplines how can universities and business schools in particular manage the expectations of an increasingly sophisticated student body that is service-aware?

A simplistic view might be to view students as purely consumers of university services – and hence to maximise the amount and quality of services that are consumed. However, university students are adult learners and hence meeting student expectations purely on the basis of service, is only one facet of university experience. Students clearly have to attain academic success in order to graduate as well.

Given the experiential and pedagogic elements involved in discussing the student experience in HE, in many ways universities need to perhaps consider students as Prosumers (consumers who are involved in designing or customising services or products for their own needs). 

If we take business schools as a case in point, when we compare this subject area with the national average, student satisfaction with business studies in the UK lags the national average by at least 4% across the key NSS metrics of teaching, assessment and feedback and academic support (whilst being 2% higher on Organisation and Management of education delivery). Clearly there is still a need for business schools to get students to engage with their subject – and teaching and assessment methods need to evolve rapidly to meet each student’s learning expectations. This will require that business and management academics spend a greater amount of time working with students – not just lecturing them. But taking the prosumer argument further, business schools and universities need to actively involve students in other elements of their student experience. This includes involving students in university decisions, such as academic boards of study, or when external examiners are reviewing student performance. Business schools, given their generally healthy financial means, need to ensure that the right resources are focussed to support and enhance student experience also. This may include virtual as well as physical teaching infrastructure – but should not exclude vital “human” contact hours with academic staff. 

On the latter, the most (r)evolutionary aspect of the student-as-prosumer concept here is that academic staff must begin to adopt a customer care approach and attitude. This is a loaded terminology for many colleagues, although the important point here is that customer principles need to be implemented alongside the pedagogic relationship – and not exclusively substituted. 

Universities should continue to provide a friendly and safe environment to learn, with clearly accessible teaching, learning and research resources. There is a risk of compartmentalisation and overlap across campuses too, where many departments seek to replicate and hence duplicate existing services. This historic approach hasn’t served campus communities well, although this is now rapidly changing across the UK. Universities therefore need to consider seeking overall improvements to student experience as a long-term investment, through seeking an integrated approach to student experience across campus. This will involve developing partnerships with students and the wider set of campus stakeholders too. 

The above points are even more salient for business schools, if we consider that business schools routinely teach the importance of alliances and partnerships, customer relationships, process effectiveness and efficiency as vital parts of running successful enterprises. Hence, to seek the improvements to student experience that we all desire, it is once again in this capacity that business schools need to lead the way for shared student experience success.

The views and opinions expressed are personal and that of the author and are not those of Brunel University.

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