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How universities can lead with service to meet student expectations

19 August, 2022 | by Matt Parker, Chief Operating Officer

As we emerge from the pandemic, institutions are grappling with irrevocable changes to the higher education landscape. In particular, meeting the increasing expectations of the ‘student as customer’ has emerged as a pressing challenge.

Competition to attract and retain students is stronger than ever post-COVID. At the same time, students have significantly higher expectations not just of their learning experience, but of institutional service quality and effectiveness – including highly accessible and convenient support.

A recent survey of University Chief Operating Officers (in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and the UK) by the Nous Group highlights a renewed focus on service effectiveness as a strategy to meet new student expectations: “More than three in four COOs…noted that improving service effectiveness was in their top three priorities,” the report says. “This focus is not a surprise, as the move to digitally enabled service models has triggered demand for a more service-oriented culture from students, academics and professional staff alike.”

So, how can improved service effectiveness position institutions strongly for long-term success?

Embracing the student as customer

While the concept of students as customers is not new, a major effect of the pandemic was to rapidly accelerate student expectations in terms of both learning and teaching, and support and service provision. As far back as 2014, research into student retention at the University of Maryland found that students were more likely to drop out after just three bad experiences with university administration.

Fast forward to 2022 and the pandemic has set even higher expectations around user-friendly, tech-enabled services. In the forced transition to online environments, students became accustomed to asking for support around technology and learning, and general administrative matters. Institutions had no choice but to rapidly increase their support services, modes of service delivery and hours of provision – and as the pandemic dragged on, these service levels became the ‘new normal’.

“For students…the wider perception of universities as providers and themselves as customers makes them particularly sensitive to service quality,” confirms the Nous Group report.

And while meeting the expectations of the ‘student as customer’ requires agile and innovative solutions, the reality is that the application of service technologies is not yet optimised in many higher education settings.

What does the student customer want?

Beyond a high-quality learning experience that results in an industry-recognised qualification, the student as customer also assumes their chosen institution will offer fast, flexible, 24/7 access to support. Through OES’s work with leading universities across Australia, New Zealand, the UK, US and Asia Pacific, we see that post-pandemic students typically expect:

  • Flexibility – students expect their course to fit in around their lives, not vice versa. And while the option to learn remotely has never been more important, providing an engaging on-campus experience that can be moulded around other commitments has emerged as a new priority, especially for undergraduate students. As the Nous Group survey explains, “while the traditional university campus is having an identity crisis, it is still central to the student and staff experience.”
  • Multi-channel support including after hours and on weekends – almost universally, students expect an ‘always on’ approach to advisory, IT and administrative support, as well as fast access to course and careers counselling. “Against a backdrop of the need to modernise service delivery and improve service effectiveness, process digitisation and automation has emerged as a clear priority,” says the Nous Group report.

Understanding your customers

For institutions to deliver highly personalised, efficient and streamlined services as the new standard, collecting and analysing the most relevant student data is critical.

The effective application of learning and support data can help universities truly understand their students’ needs throughout their education journey. As well as informing course design and teaching methods, analytics can directly influence broader service effectiveness. Universities can scale their teams up and down with demand – based on real time data and insights – to deliver effective administrative, tech, career and course support to students at critical times.

Whether they are learning on-campus, online or via hybrid models, students have higher expectations than ever, as the bar for digital excellence, already high before the pandemic, has gone through the roof. Once the bar is set, it can’t be dropped: once a customer, always a customer.

Rising to the challenge

To assist the sector (our customers!) as its grapples with the new expectations, OES has adapted its own service model, so we can offer standalone solutions targeted to institutional need. We are seeing some universities prioritising their support channels, while others are handpicking course portfolios to uplift their online, hybrid or on-campus offerings. Our technology-enabled approach has been vital in helping universities move beyond a proof of concept with learning analytics, to get the right data into the hands of teaching and support staff, often served alongside in-platform support actions they can take in response to insights.

While there is no denying the size of the challenge for higher education, a sharp customer focus at least offers a strategic view. By looking at their offer through the lens of the student customer, institutions can identify the most urgent gaps in both service and the learning environment – and this is the place to start.