UK universities are leaving no stone unturned in their efforts to provide a positive experience to all students under their care. What has always been important is now critical as the changes the TEF will bring promise to increase the stakes for universities up and down the league tables.

The myriad options and methods for addressing the student experience can be mindboggling. Is it best to invest in estates? Do gleaming new Macs in the library make an impact? Are clubs and societies what students want most? The answer, unfortunately, is that the right answer is a mix of the above. However, amongst the swirl of options, it can be helpful to return to core principles. In my conversations with universities, I return to the same four points over and over again. These aren’t programmes and initiatives per se, but guideposts that can undergird the introduction and development of the same.

Principle #1: Academics are the primary source of belonging, retention and satisfaction

The various projects of the What Works? Student retention and success programme revealed a common theme: the academic sphere is the best place to generate a strong connection between students and the university. This applies to non-traditional, mature and non-resident students as much as it does for traditional students who live in university accommodation. Happily, a deeper connection to academics is what students want and regularly ask for. Thus investing in initiatives and resources to deepen connections between students and their academic relationships serves two objectives: it gives students what they want and increases their sense of connection and belonging.

Principle #2: Don’t ignore the potential impact of student services

At the same time, there’s a large opportunity for student services to positively impact the student experience. In fact, because professional services tend to be more centralised and coordinated than disparate academic departments, they can serve as a core of holistic support within the institution that helps students succeed. As the most recent UNITE Student Satisfaction survey states, “Where students reported that they would be able to turn to a variety of support services…students are less likely to have considered dropping out of university.”

Principle #3: Life happens all the time

Students don’t experience obstacles and challenges in silos, and they don’t encounter them at predictable times. A student with every reasonable expectation of a positive experience at the point of induction may run into a breakup, financial difficulties, stress at home or any number of challenges that threaten to disrupt his or her experience. Universities must develop flexibility and the capacity to detect changing circumstances to intervene when it's necessary.

Principle #4: People make the difference

Hard data are important to understanding the student experience, but ultimately it’s students’ relationships with people that make the difference. I’m reminded of a story I heard from a colleague who spent the first two weeks in her first year of university miserable, lonely and regretting her decision to enrol. Her experience turned completely around when a food service worker smiled at her and welcomed her with warm words. There’s no way to quantify that kind of interaction, just as there’s no auto-tutor technology that will meet every student’s needs. Education is a deeply human experience and any approach to improving the student experience that elevates the reach and effectiveness of the people who work directly with students will have the biggest effect.

There is no magic bullet for generating a positive student experience. It takes blood, sweat and tears and a nuanced, human approach to staff-student relationships. Fortunately, universities are staffed with committed, caring individuals who want to see students succeed. With the right tools in place, pursuing the four principles above can help these people promote a positive student experience across the institution.  

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