Attracting, engaging and retaining students – who are now essentially fee-paying customers – has become a huge factor in higher education. Given this month’s news from the Institute for Fiscal Studies that students now leave university with an average debt of £44,000, it’s not surprising that their expectations are higher and that universities have to work like never before to meet them. Plainly, if students are dissatisfied and overall retention takes a hit, then attracting new students in the first place becomes an almost impossible task.
I firmly believe that the best way for a university to engage with its students is by treating them as the paying customers that they are and ‘delighting them’ – in the same way as businesses in the commercial world do – by making them feel special. Look at how the financial services sector had to adapt and make dramatic changes to the way it treated customers following deregulation in the 1980s. That has to be the model for higher education institutions today as they cope with a similarly significant change and find that previously compliant students who were funded by government and generally accepting of the teaching and resources on offer have become very choosy customers, savvy about where and when they want their lectures delivered.
This is where software solutions which enable universities to deliver personalised timetables for students come into their own. Mobile apps, such as CliqueIn from Scientia are very popular with students because they allow them to access information such as their class and exam timetables from any or all of their mobile devices. They can also use the app to share calendars and location information, access campus news and maps, and receive notifications and alerts such as coursework deadlines, room changes or exam grades.
I think this app, and other tools like it currently in development, will play a major part in helping universities improve engagement and retention levels simply because 21st century students will not expect anything less than cutting edge technology and software solutions. This generation of students has grown up ‘connected’ and has no concept of a world without the internet and information at their fingertips any time, anywhere. It is simply not good enough in the 21st century for students to slog across town to university to find a piece of paper pinned to the door informing them that the lecture has been cancelled for example. They would be angry to find such a notice at their bank, or even at the hairdressers, so why will they accept it from a university they are paying to attend?
Many of the more forward-thinking institutions are also engaging students by offering courses in more creative ways – online delivery and blended learning are new avenues to be explored. But of course moves like this have huge implications for resource management as universities find themselves faced with the task of scheduling online lectures and coping with a decreasing number of students working on site. University administrators also need to be mindful of what students want from a timetable regarding their work/life balance – for example the needs of 19-21-year-old undergraduates are very different from those of mature students who might be looking for flexible hours and child care.
Again, intelligent resource management can help here by optimising room usage schedules to make the most effective use of space. By maximising the use of their resources in this way universities are similarly able to maximise their investments and focus more on student satisfaction and quality of delivery.
Mohamad Djahanbakhsh is Group Chief Executive Officer of Scientia