Customer-centric HE starts with knowing what students want

Students have become more discerning customers and consumers of higher education in recent years. It can be assumed that this trend is not about to change anytime soon. So it’s vital to consider what students appear to increasingly value and expect of their higher education experience. This has implications for practically all areas of a higher education institution’s operation – academic and administrative.

First and foremost, students expect value for the time and financial investment they make in undertaking their chosen programme of study. Ever-increasing tuition fees are leaving them with considerable student debt that can take them many years to pay off.

They recognise that in today’s world attaining a degree is about much more than preparation for a single job. They want their credential to equip them with broad-based skills alongside professional discipline-specific knowledge and understanding. They want to know that their education has provided them with the competencies, attributes and learning tools to be flexible, creative and adaptable contributors to society.

They expect to receive a quality education, one that is highly regarded by the profession(s) they anticipate they will enter. At the same time, they want their teaching-learning experience to be engaging and personally rewarding and the curriculum to incorporate a mix of global perspectives and critical societal issues.

Students expect that their education will be robust, transferable and a strong grounding for both career mobility and further studies as wanted or needed. Students know the merit in being able to apply the knowledge and understanding being acquired in their studies to real world experiences.

They appreciate having opportunities whilst enrolled to undertake episodes of work-integrated learning relevant to their career development and to further their acquisition of professional attributes.

Qualification pathways

They also look for smooth articulation arrangements and seamless qualification pathways, allowing them to access purposeful learning opportunities throughout their career so that they can keep pace with the rapid rate of technological and economic change.

Similarly, the availability of short programmes of study or micro-credentials during or after their degree is an increasingly attractive option. Ones that allow them to master a particular skill or knowledge set quickly enable them to remain in-demand and contemporary in their field.

Students also appreciate more personalised and convenient study choices. Many have sampled ‘forced’ flexible and-or online study options over the past few years. While it was not embraced by all, many found it especially appealing as a means of providing them with the opportunity to engage in learning experiences that better accommodate their lifestyle needs.

Today’s student is digitally savvy and generally more welcoming of the virtual-learning option as a means of delivering a more personalised learning experience.

As stated at the outset, these student expectations require work on the part of higher education institutions across their entire operation – leadership, management, staffing, finance, planning, reporting, information technology and risk management, to name just a few areas.

They also need to ensure that their major client base – the student – receives a quality product that is relevant, rewarding and accessible. The latter means attending to a number of specific key areas.

Real learning

Foremost is ensuring study programmes allow for real learning rather than the imparting by instructors, and in turn the expected retention by students, of masses of rapidly outdated information. All programmes must be constructive, contemporary and provide students with ample opportunities to improve on their performance to meet expected learning outcomes.

That means encompassing a diversity of assessments that support learning and enable students to demonstrate they meet or exceed academic and professional requirements. It also means paying attention to what structural changes should occur to ensure prompt adaptation of study programmes as required to better address student needs.

Further, judicious decisions will need to be made about how various digital technologies will continue to be incorporated into the teaching-learning environment to augment the face-to-face experience. That involves ensuring flexible learning experiences are made available on demand and all stakeholders are appropriately supported in the use and in the management of instructional technologies employed.

Judgements will need to be made about how to most effectively and efficiently diversify the types of credentials offered beyond the current four-year and postgraduate coursework degrees. That includes being responsive in developing and delivering short certificate type credentials that target specific bespoke competencies that allow students or graduates opportunities to reskill or upskill.

Customer-centric strategies

There has already been good discussion by a considerable number of institutions that are representative of the sector about what and how universities and colleges can deliver the quality, diversity and flexibility students increasingly desire. Many are rethinking their strategies to make them more customer-centric to better meet the more advanced expectations of today’s students.

They are looking at their performance with a critical eye to ensure they are at the forefront of new developments and ideas rather than continuously playing catch-up.

The hard part, of course, is translating these discussions into tangible implementation and seeing genuine positive progress occur. How effective the response is will determine their level of success in creating reliable customer-centric learning experiences.

Dr Nita Temmerman has held senior university positions including pro vice-chancellor (academic quality and partnerships) and executive dean in Australia. She is an invited accreditation specialist with the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications and international associate with the Center for Learning Innovations and Customized Knowledge Solutions in Dubai. She is chair of two higher education academic boards, and invited professor and consultant to universities in Australia, the Pacific region, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.