Keep Listening: Let your students shape how your institution adapts to COVID-19 and beyond?

Posted by Guy Perring

Keep Listening: Let your students shape how your institution adapts to COVID-19 and beyond?


Without resorting to the cliches of the last 12 months such as unprecedented, ‘new normal’ etc. there is little debate that students have faced much of the brunt of the upheavals caused by the pandemic and the flashes of uncertainty that have zapped across the global systems of HE, as universities have opened and then closed their campuses in rapid succession. Many decisions have had to be taken without consultation with students, student unions or student representative bodies, due to the need for a rapid response to the changing environment, the whims of government and the evolving shape of the pandemic.

But now is the time to really listen to students and gauge their feelings and views. We, at i-graduate, know that our Student Barometer is an invaluable tool to listen to your students, get beyond the anecdotal, and get real actionable data amongst the swirl of information and misinformation.

Of course, any survey such as ours needs to triangulate with other processes such as focus groups or direct engagement with student leaders and students. But the key reasons that institutions choose to run our Barometer is that it gives them the ability to benchmark all the indices with other institutions globally, and they trust i-graduate as an independent authority on the student voice.

The survey is currently live across the globe, and, inevitably, we have found some institutions were reluctant to survey their students during a time of uncertainty, fearing a plunge in satisfaction rates. However, many institutions realized it was actually even more important during this time to get a measure of how students were feeling, especially as institutions pivoted to offer their learning and support services online. They need to know where they are getting it right and where they need to improve.

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We are delighted to have so far had over 35,000 responses across 27 institutions globally, and the process is still live so those numbers will continue to increase. We are very confident it is the largest student opinion data set gathered during the COVID crisis, and reveals a picture of institutions globally adapting rapidly to maintain excellence in the student experience.

Having participated in the ISB since 2005, we recognise the value of reaching out to international students to understand what we need to do to deliver an experience comparable to the best in the world. Gathering the views of international students has never been more important, considering how the pandemic has forced us to rethink how we deliver education and the wider student experience. The views our students share with us now will help to shape and inform what we deliver in ways we would never have imagined previously for many years to come.

 - Fiona O’Carroll, Deputy Director International, Durham University

Our process is really about measuring whether or not students’ expectations of the learning, living and support services match the experience. In 2020/21, when we look at the international student responses, we have of course seen a drop in overall satisfaction (around 4-5%pts*), increases in students’ concerns about completing their courses (around 5%pts*), and an overall drop in happiness (around 7%pts*). We might have expected a much more vertiginous drop, but students really do appear to appreciate the efforts made by institutions to rapidly shift all their services to an online delivery. Around 85%* of students are still satisfied or very satisfied with their experience! That’s pretty amazing considering what we have gone through.

Where now for Student Support?

There is much debate and discussion in HE circles about how the pandemic will lead to a profound shift in how we deliver education globally, and that hybrid forms of delivery, incorporating online and face-to-face, will be the norm. I actually think the shift will be less profound than we believe. Evidence from China, which is arguably on the other side of the pandemic, has seen the return to business as usual with large scale lectures, for example, not replaced by online alternatives.

 Track student perceptions with i-graduate’s Student Barometer

Where I believe there will be a profound change is in the nature of student support. This will take place across the board. Orientation and arrival processes, financial payments, virtual internships and virtual exchange programmes will all permanently change to some extent. We have already seen many institutions begin to shift their orientation processes online prior to the pandemic. This made sense for Gen Z students looking for bite size information delivered in graphical formats, and even more so for international students wishing to get a clear understanding of what they should expect in their first few weeks, so they and to hit the ground running when they eventually make it to the campus.

“Right now, our students want an increase in engagement – because they are no longer bound by classroom hours, they feel they should be able to text lecturers after working hours. So, it’s moving towards 24/7 learning support.”

- Siti Fariza Mohd Dahlan, Director of University Services, Sunway University

Our Barometer uniquely covers all these aspects of support services as well as broader questions about living on campus and the environment surrounding it. This year we have naturally seen a drop in satisfaction with support services, but the fact that drop hasn’t been more calamitous is due to the pro-active work of staff who have shifted their services online. 84%* of students remain satisfied or very satisfied with the support structures in place.

Where I’m based in Asia, we have large scale public university campuses which hadn’t embraced the concept of a one-stop shop for student services. Students at the start of a semester faced the daunting prospect of attending orientation, completing academic registration and tuition payment at various corners of campuses. This required long walks in the heat or hopeful waits for intermittent bus services. As services have moved online there has been a need for departments to co-ordinate better and use technology to accomplish tasks that previously required a complex paper trail. This has broken down silos across universities and these processes will inevitably become more seamless. The key solution has been to start with the student and focus on how to make their experience better, rather than have systems designed for the convenience of university bureaucracy. 

“With these changing needs and expectations, the university needs to respond well, so we need the student feedback on what challenges they face. With Student Barometer we can understand how to adopt initiatives to improve the student experience.”

- Siti Fariza Mohd Dahlan, Director of University Services, Sunway University

 Track student perceptions with i-graduate’s Student Barometer Closing Thoughts

So, keep listening to your students; they are very understanding of the challenge that institutions face. Their views and feedback should shape the decisions that institutions make to ensure the student experience is the best that it can be.

*Figures from the Barometer survey, which is currently live, are subject to change. At this point in the survey ‘wave’ we do not expect significant changes to the overall figures.


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