Student Experience in the Age of the Customer

Universities are committing to improve their student experience, judging by strategic plans released recently. But what exactly is student experience, and how do we get a handle on its components so that reforms will be effective?

In our new report, Student Experience in the Age of the Customer, based on interviews and workshops with students and educators, we argue that five Ds constitute changing student characteristics. Students will become increasingly diverse, digital, discerning, demanding and debt-averse over the next decade. Put bluntly, they will demand more and expect to pay less for it.

During 2020 we saw international students seeking discounts for services they deemed inferior and moving their business to other supplier nations while our borders remained closed. Demand from domestic students may temporarily have increased but this is due the loss of the international gap year and lower employment. It all stems from the shift away from university as an unquestioned rite of passage for the middle classes and towards university as a calculated form of investment for anyone.

By 2030, higher education students will be drawn from a much more diverse set of backgrounds and will be engaging with education in more diverse ways while seeking a greater variety of outcomes across their lifetimes.
Every institution’s student population will demand a rich digital learning, engagement and service platform, whatever else they will demand. Battling traffic, car parking and a shortage of library seats will be even less appealing as on-campus learning continues to reduce as the default mode.

According to our fieldwork, learners will be more discerning, better informed, more aware of employment prospects, more instrumental and more deliberate in their choices, whether these choices are driven by passion or purpose or a combination. At the same time, a resurgence of idealism that is apparent in individual, social and corporate life is likely to shape how and what learners study and what they expect of their tertiary institutions.

A tertiary qualification does not guarantee the financial return of the recent past in many nations. This is certainly the case in Australia. As global economic conditions become more challenging due to COVID-19 and its aftermath, prospective tertiary students around the globe will become more debt-averse.

They will seek out cheaper alternatives, choose to delay the commencement of a qualification or forego that qualification altogether. Some young people overseas who today choose to study in Australia will be more cautious and weigh up cheaper alternatives in their home county and those that are available digitally from high brand international providers anywhere.

Taking all this into account, the institutions that can deliver high-quality educational outcomes recognised by employers, an excellent period of personal development and seamless transacting will gain significant competitive advantage.

Reimagining SX will be core to both COVID-19 recovery and the creation of a new reality in Australian higher education as our institutions face more disruption and increased competition in coming years.

To address these challenges we say universities can translate into the educational environment the tools of customer experience proved in other sectors whilst retaining the unique qualities of university-level study. They can know better the aspirations, learning styles, talents and assessment preferences of each type of student they seek to serve and then deliver personalised products, services and outcomes.

The stakes are high, at a time when universities’ stocks are not. Building great SX will be core to universities’ sustainability, competitiveness and social licence to operate. Staying the same will not serve the needs of increasingly diverse, digital, discerning, and demanding students. The Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) will no longer be the Afterpay of an over-heated consumer market, and more a mortgage scheme for buyers seeking lifelong value for money.

This article first appeared in The Australian.


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