The first-class student journey

UB editor Rebecca Paddick asks some of the sector’s experts, how can HE deliver the very best student experience?


Prof Jane Turner – Pro Vice-Chancellor for Enterprise and Business Engagement at Teesside University

Bre Edwards – Director of Student Life at University of the West of Scotland 

Geoff Webster – Managing Director of CEG Digital 

Jon Wakeford – Director of Strategy and Communications at UPP

Jonathan Wylie – Director of Academic Services, The Open University

Prof Paul Ryan – Regents University London

Rav Panesar – HE Business Development Manager at Leeds City College’s University Centre

Steve Hawkins – European Divisional Director Student Living by Sodexo

What best illustrates the excellent student experience you are offering? 

Jane Turner: A collective passion, determination and commitment to make our students the best they can be. This involves ensuring that the more transactional elements of the student journey are as efficient and effective as they can be but that students consider themselves to be important as individuals and that they have a personal identity within Teesside University. To enable this outcome, we provide an experience that ensures students engage in opportunities that stretch and challenge their self-perceptions, values and beliefs. 

Bre Edwards:  At University of the West of Scotland there is a real philosophy of student support, led by our Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Craig Mahoney.  Proactive support of students is the key driving principle behind the success of our student support services. Primarily, our approach aims to identify and offer support to students before they encounter problems and, of course, if and when issues do arise. 

For 2017-18, we are implementing a year-long induction programme, aiming to get students the information they need at the time they need it, rather than taking a ‘let’s cover everything in the first week’ approach which can easily overwhelm new students. The approach UWS takes is that if we support students in their awareness of services at the point that it is relevant, then as a result they are more likely to take advantage of the services we offer. 

Geoff Webster: The entire student journey – from lead to graduation – is tailored to the individual in our partnerships with Falmouth University, University of Southampton, University of London, International Programmes and Queen Mary University of London where we create, produce, market and deliver a portfolio of blended learning postgraduate and CPD programmes. The application process is swift, simple and effective, with live chat available to assist applicants and a 48-hour target turnaround time between application and offer. All students receive access to a state-of-the-art learning management system through which they can gain high-quality interactive materials. They also participate in group discussion and interactive exercises moderated by an online tutor. Because student-tutor ratios are 1/20 they receive personalised teaching and coaching throughout their studies. Learning is mainly asynchronous, and weekly real-time webinars are held at varying times to accommodate different time zones.   

Jonathan Wylie: At The Open University (OU) we pride ourselves in offering a unique mix of flexible, all-inclusive, supportive and social teaching that enables our students to succeed, regardless of their background or personal circumstances.

We have more disabled students than any other university in Europe. The flexible nature of OU study and our experience in harnessing enabling technologies to support learning means over 20,000 people with a wide range of disabilities, including mental health issues, choose to study with us each year. 

For people who aren’t sure if distance learning is right for them, the OU offers a variety of ways to access course materials for free. Our home of free learning – OpenLearn – aims to break the barriers to education by reaching millions of learners around the world, providing free educational resources and inviting all to sample courses that our registered students take – all for free. We also created FutureLearn – the first UK-led platform provider of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), offering free online courses from top universities and specialist organisations across the globe. 

Paul Ryan: Regent’s most successful initiative is the Student Hub – situated in a central location and online for all of our students to interact with their personal tutors and benefit from other important academic, welfare and pastoral services.

Following a very successful first National Student Survey, particularly in relation to student voice, we have also ensured that our students and the Students’ Union are fully represented at every level across the University. From programme committees to validations, Boards and our Senate Committee meetings. This is a vital development and allows the University’s decision-making to be fully influenced and engaged with the student body’s views and opinions.

Rav Panesar: We believe we offer an environment that’s right for our students. The University Centre provides a dedicated, relaxed and supportive learning environment perfect for undergraduate and postgraduate study. We encourage collaboration and inclusivity with breakout rooms, study areas, IT suites and Wi-Fi as standard. Smaller class sizes, compressed timetables, excellent employer links, a free Chomebook (or equivalent) for all our first-year students and lower fees, provides the best experience for our students.

Steve Hawkins: I would say that student satisfaction levels, the number of students returning to the residences managed by Student Living, along with client feedback are the key indicators of whether we are meeting the expectations of both our client and students. For example:

Our most recent survey of university leavers at Northumbria University showed that the average student satisfaction rate within Student Living is over 90%, 

We have a repeat number of 2nd, 3rd and 4th year students returning to our residences because of the great experience they had in their 1st year;

The awards we’ve won, of which the student experience forms a part. This has included Trinity Hall recently being named ‘Newcastle Student Hall of the Year’ at the recent NESHA awards. 

Trinity Hall was also accredited by ANUK earlier this year and we were pleased that the assessor had such positive comments on the systems we have in place. 

Learning is mainly asynchronous, and weekly real-time webinars are held at varying times to accommodate different time zones

What recent developments at your campus best show your commitment to boosting student experience? 

Jane Turner: A Student Futures Strategy that will deliver a work-related learning experience for all. Specific activities including our investment in the Business Clinic: 70 students engaged in 2016-17 and 100 in 2017-18 and we have experienced a 220% increase in those students able to engage in start-up experiences. The engagement of Reed recruitment company to work with us to build attitude and confidence of our students, the set-up of our Digital Studio where interns work on digital and animation contracts for business, and Hackathons, where students and staff work together to provide innovative options for businesses seeking to innovate, have all been key strategic initiatives. Our commitment for every student to engage in a work-related experience means every student.

Bre Edwards: The investment in our support centre ‘The Hub,’ which acts as a one-stop shop for all student services, is a prime example of our commitment to boosting the student experience. Students shouldn’t need to understand our internal structures in order to effectively access support or have questions answered. From the Hub, they can book appointments with various services, get help with any queries and we also help guide them through, often complex, routes to the right support. The Hub is accessible virtually and the team successfully deal with most queries in less than an hour. The implementation of the service has increased the capacity of our professional advisors and enabled more 1-2-1 and group support sessions.

Geoff Webster: In May 2017 we introduced a ‘student hub’ which serves as a one-stop shop for students to access additional support, institutional support services and instruction on how best to use the VLE. We have also recently introduced drop-in sessions with student advisers and we make the experience as interactive as possible, for example through weekly videos and also by interacting with students on our Facebook page. At the end of every module now students are asked to complete a satisfaction survey – giving us the opportunity to rapidly change or adapt materials to clear up any confusion being experienced by students – this all contributes to the student experience.

Jonathan Wylie: Developments in technology have allowed us to deliver our courses online in a variety of ways such as via video, podcast and interactive apps. Such variety means that our academics and tutors work with new technologies to find the best ways to deliver key areas of course materials. For example, we use learning analytics to help us identify those who are struggling and intervene at an early stage with the help of our tutor network.

Another example is our Open STEM Lab which won Outstanding Digital Innovation of the year at the THE Leadership & Management awards 2017. The Labs are a global centre at the cutting-edge of practical science teaching – operated entirely online. Although operated entirely online, users are able to access data from real physical instruments and equipment, enabling them to carry out authentic and rigorous science investigations.  

Paul Ryan: We’re currently engaging with a number of initiatives to further improve our student experience, ranging from having our own Interior Design BA (Hons) students work on a redesign of the University’s Park Campus reception area, through to exploring new technology to make our campus more navigable and accessible for disabled students.

Rav Panesar: We continue to invest in our facilities and for September 2017, our University Centre will have dedicated social and study zones, an onsite librarian to help with report writing and academic skills, plus our very own deli so students can ensure they are looked after whilst studying with us. 

Our provision continues to be reviewed to ensure it meets the needs of employers, with a number of significant changes to our courses. This includes revamping our computing courses where we now offer Cyber Security and Networking to meet the skills shortages in the district and beyond. 

We have also made a significant change to our business courses and will run Business, Enterprise and Management, which includes an enterprise element for those starting or running their own businesses.

Are we doing enough to ensure that international students have the best possible experience? Are the potential effects of Brexit for our European students any clearer now?

Bre Edwards: We could always be doing more to ensure international students have the best possible experience at university. Our central support team at UWS is constantly striving to improve and do more for international students. On inclusivity, we run special events for Passover, Easter and Purim across our campuses, and engage with the local community by contributing to ‘Grey Space’, an organisation dedicated to combatting hate crime and promoting inclusion.  

As an institution, we expect the UK will become a less attractive destination for EU students due to negative sentiment surrounding Brexit. As such, we will need to find ways of positively communicating the benefits of studying in Scotland, and at UWS in particular, to continue to attract students from the EU.  

Geoff Webster: The diversity of backgrounds of the online student body is remarkable – 12 different nationalities amongst a typical cohort of 20 on our programmes for Falmouth University which have been running for 12 months. UK and international students work together in a seamless, natural fashion. The personalised support offered by student advisers is critical for international students as is access to specialised services, including English for academic services. Webinars are scheduled with different time zones in mind. Tutors are located all over the world – not just in the UK. Our support team is multicultural and we have team members fluent in 10 different languages. We are highly supportive of all students, and potential effects of Brexit are not really relevant to online students.

Jon Wakeford: Whilst the potential effects of Brexit on European students may still be unclear, it’s worth noting the extent to which this is impacting on some domestic students. According to research as part of our annual Student Experience Survey, almost half of first year students and applicants (45%) say they would be disappointed if there is a reduction in EU and international students at their university. Overall, our research has found that meeting a variety of people at university is an important part of a good, non-academic experience for 43% of first year students and applicants. These results show that students value the opportunities universities offer to expand their horizons, and that, clearly, meeting with students from different countries with varying backgrounds forms a significant part of the student experience.  

With tuition fees continuing to rise, how might students’ expectations change? 

Jane Turner: Students will become increasingly focused upon the quality of their experience – are we exposed to motivated, knowledgeable role models in academic staff? Do we have access to a variety of learning pathways? Do we feel we have an identity as an individual? Do I want a more flexible learning experience? Do staff care about me?; and, ultimately, will I get the job I deserve – a graduate level job? These are all key questions we must grasp.

Geoff Webster: Student expectations will continue to rise – there is no doubt about that. We think universities will need to up their game in order to deliver the same personalised, premium experience we are already implementing in the online sphere. Importantly there is no difference in treatment between our UK, EU or international students.

Jon Wakeford: Student expectations are increasing and not only regarding the quality of provision. More and more – and correctly in my view – there is an expected return on investment. This is pitched alongside a desire for premium, high-quality, affordable accommodation. Our focus will remain one of supporting universities to achieve their ambitions and ultimately improve the experiences of their students. 

Jonathan Wylie:  As a distance learning university, digital technology is one of the key components of our engagement with our students so it is crucial that the service we provide meets the expectations of an increasingly tech-savvy world. We already do this at the OU, however, with technology changing at a rapid rate, we know that we need to do more to ensure that we are agile enough to respond to change as quickly as possible. This is why we have embarked on a programme to overhaul our digital offering, putting the student’s experience at the centre of our new provision.      

Paul Ryan: As one of the UK’s few independent, not-for-profit universities, all of our students pay the same tuition fees regardless of their nationality. All of our surplus is reinvested back into the University for the benefit of the student experience. While many institutions seem to be struggling with budgetary constraints and balancing priorities between teaching research and third-stream activity, we believe this uniform approach to fees offers a much fairer and consistent solution. 

Rav Panesar: As fees increase, I believe the expectations of students will likely change with more personalised tailored support to meet individual needs. This could include more contact time with personal tutors and more holistic teaching which prepares graduates with the higher-level skills needed for employment. There will be more of a requirement for institutions to have a fully networked establishment that links directly with employers, providing enrichment experiences that are embedded within the curriculum.

Steve Hawkins: Students now consider themselves as consumers in the era of £9,000-a-year fees, therefore both them and their parents may expect more ‘bang for their buck’. While this will be primarily focused on the quality of teaching and class sizes, there will also be an increased expectation of both the accommodation and facilities that are available.

Value for money remains a key issue. In the future we may see a ‘price/quality charter’ created to guarantee fees versus value for money. This could form part of the University webpage or be privately led offering star ratings similar to what we see in the hotel market.

A range of rent price points remains key so accommodation suppliers will need to consider innovative ways to design and build or reconfigure residences to be able to offer affordability. (This could include room sharing, twodios, etc.)

The impact of potential fee increases may mean that students consider a university nearer to home and commute. 

With the introduction of the Apprentice Levy, students may look to join apprenticeship programmes that offer access to a degree qualification, therefore the focus could shift to online off-campus learning, which would be a significant change to the current model.

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

Jane Turner: One which is completely student-centred, which results in students feeling valued, cared for, stretched, challenged, motivated, engaged, confident and where they are able to articulate what they are becoming and become in terms of skills set, knowledge, behaviours and mindset. This requires a culture which is completely student-focused, where decisions are always looked at through the lens of – how will this benefit/impact the student? 

Bre Edwards: Undertaking a degree is a journey. It should be challenging, supported, allow for self-reflection, and increase resilience. Any hurdles to a student, academically or personally, should not prevent success and achievement, but rather further increase their resolve. On graduation day, students should be proud of their accomplishments and know that they did what they set out to do, with the right level of support and guidance. That defines a great student experience. 

Geoff Webster: Terrific outcomes delivered via a highly personalised, interactive and stimulating experience with empathetic academic and pastoral support. There is growing demand for distance learning from UK and international students, particularly in emerging markets. More and more people are attracted by the reputation of a top UK institution but face barriers to relocation, including mature students, in-work professionals who want to upskill, those who can’t undertake the financial cost of a year abroad or those unable to obtain a visa. By focusing on a university’s core skills – delivering excellence in education, and working with CEG Digital in our specialist area co-designing and co-delivering new models of learning – we are addressing a growing student demand for flexibility.

Jon Wakeford: For the last five years, we’ve been asking students what they want from their student experience. For them, making new friends and having a good campus atmosphere continue to be the two most important aspects of a good non-academic experience. 

Additionally, in seeking to create the ‘best’ student experience, ensuring that each element of that journey is focused on resolving the key issues faced by students, remains critical. The phases of the student journey should not be properly discrete, rather they should ideally be fused together, with the infrastructure of services supporting teaching, flowing in parallel. A great student experience should therefore be one which establishes a relationship for life. This includes: assisting in the process of becoming a student; providing innovative approaches to the delivery of teaching and research whilst the student is enrolled; and one that maintains that relationship with the student and the local economy to the benefit of all parties. 

Jonathan Wylie: The best student experience is one that fits with that individual student. Flexibility on how and where and even when you study; the ability to network with your peers online and face to face, a great tutor relationship and a clear idea of where you are headed all contribute. Our students at the OU don’t miss out because they aren’t physically on a campus – many are in work and employers are able to gain too from their student experience, straight away. 

Paul Ryan: Everything we do as an institution contributes to creating the very best student experience. This process starts even before a student comes to Regent’s. At the enquiry stage our professional services colleagues are with the students every step of the way. 

This continues through an extended induction and includes how we welcome our students, how we engage parents and guardians, the quality of our facilities, teaching and learning, our range of courses, academic expertise, care and support, engagement with industry, and the quality of our graduate networks. 

Rav Panesar: I strongly believe that understanding student needs from the outset and providing the infrastructure for them to exceed their potential is what makes up the best student experience. This can include, for example, excellent sports facilities, Students’ Union, work experience, employer links, societies and innovative blended learning that motivates and engages students, providing high-quality graduate destinations. 

Steve Hawkins: Giving students the best start at university through support in those first few crucial weeks and on their journey forward. Assist students to make lifelong friends and build communities that will last a lifetime. 


29 October 2020 11am (GMT)

Streamlining the virtual student experience