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What next for UK universities and the challenge to get value for money right for disillusioned student populations?

The BBC News article, Students: ‘Uni definitely not good value this year’, published in June this year gave further exposure to the student voice in the UK, and supported the findings of i-graduate’s student satisfaction survey, the International Student Barometer. The scrutiny placed on value for money has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. How do UK universities fair against their global counterparts, and where should university leaders focus their efforts and finite resources to improve value for money?

As vaccines are rolled out and the threat from COVID diminishes, students are returning to campuses. Our own global student satisfaction survey, the Student Barometer, shows that around 80% of students prefer studying face-to-face than online. They're coming back to campus and a lecture hall near you soon. And having proven remarkably resilient throughout the pandemic, their expectations will be higher than ever.

Our Student Barometer research shows that across the UK, overall satisfaction with the university experience is 78% - this is 7% lower than the global average, and a significant 11% down on 2019. Consider the fact that only 65% of students thought their institution offered good value for money this year, and the challenge for UK institutions looks to be more pronounced than the challenge facing our global counterparts.

So, what is most important to students? Value for money is going to be key. Students have swallowed some pretty poor value for money during the pandemic, from the loss of face-to-face teaching to accommodation costs not being refunded. In the main, we found that they faced this with understanding and stoicism, but they'll want bang for their buck now.

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The Student Barometer research shows that employability (or future career impact) is the top factor that influences which institution students choose to study at. Institution reputation is also up there. And once the students have arrived at the university, library, the accommodation office, and the health centre are all well used. So, these are obviously things to get right, but they aren't the only areas that influence the student experience. How do you know what's really going to delight your students and make them rave about their experience to other prospective students? Universities, at this critical juncture in the HE landscape, will need to understand what students think about all aspects of the student journey. And naturally they then have the task of prioritising resources to optimise that student journey.

It's a delicate balancing act, and we at Tribal are in a particularly unique position to help. Universities have been using our Financial Benchmarking for 20 years to inform their resourcing decisions. And our student satisfaction survey, the i-graduate Student Barometer, has been used globally for nearly as long. By combining these two datasets we’re able to tell universities what things cost and also show them what students think of those things. Critically, we are comparing institutions data with sector benchmarks. This gives the analysis valuable context that helps inform priorities and drive those decisions that not only positively impact their students’ satisfaction, but also help the institution develop that all-important competitive edge.

We're now comparing the cost and the quality of the student experience to give a complete view of University performance. Leaders can now answer questions like, “How much should the institution increase investment in the VLE now there'll be a demand for better online resources to support the return to face-to-face delivery?” and “How does our investment in the career service stack up if future career impact plays such a key part of student expectations?”

It is these such details that universities will clearly need to look at if they are to improve student satisfaction with targeted investments. Expectations have never been higher - knowing in detail what students care about most has never been more important. In the BBC article, Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said it was important to "capture students' real views in a year when students and staff have faced unprecedented challenges". The next academic year will arguably be just as important, if not more so, as universities assess the impact of their strategies to address slumps in satisfaction and student perceptions of value for money. It will also be imperative for institutions to understand how their student voice compares with the global student voice so they can inform decisions to remain competitive in domestic and international markets. After much debate and rhetoric, it really is time to get value for money right for our students.

Find out more: Performance Benchmarking project