Six Strategic Questions about the Student Experience in 2019 | AUA Blog


Dr Andrew West, FAUA is Strategic Adviser to the AUA and a Fellow of the Halpin Partnership

My career in HE administration and management spans nearly 30 years – most recently as University Secretary at the University of Sheffield, and, since 2017, providing consulting services to universities across the sector.  Many of my consulting projects relate to student issues and I am beginning 2019 by sharing half a dozen strategic questions about the student experience which universities seem to be grappling with at present.  I would be interested in whether these themes are also relevant in your context and/or how they might play out in your university during 2019.  At the end of the blog I offer a few reflections about resources – thinking about how institutions, teams and individuals might respond to these challenges in the twelve months ahead.


  1. How is your student experience governed?

University governing bodies typically hold the institutional responsibility for ensuring student welfare – in practice there is often a question about how often student issues are considered by governors beyond some of the particularly tricky areas, and/or when media interest dictates.  Bearing in mind growing regulatory scrutiny around the student interest, if you have a mechanism in place for discussing student matters with governors, the coming year might be the time to review these arrangements and test their efficacy.

  1. Who is leading the student experience?

In many institutions a partnership approach is the norm, incorporating senior academic and professional services leadership.  Certainly there are areas where an academic lead is vital and other activities where professional services leadership makes much more sense.  Some universities seem to struggle to get this balance right – without suitable clarity, the interface into governance on the one hand and operations on the other can soon become problematic.

  1. What sort of organisation?

As far as the professional services are concerned, some universities are moving away from the binary structure typified by two separate senior roles (“academic registrar” and “head of student services”).  A unified organisation encompassing the whole student experience is now a common approach and there are self-evident advantages when thinking about a ‘user’ rather than a ‘provider’ view.  Where very extensive team structures emerge, there can be a genuine leadership challenge to face: stepping beyond functional specialisms to embrace a wider perspective, and requiring leadership capability to build and implement strategy.

  1. Local or central?

The senior management conundrum around devolution vs centralisation presents itself across all areas of university activity.  Within the student experience, universities are increasingly tackling the question head-on, in part encouraged by national initiatives on student mental health proposing a ‘whole institution’ approach.  Genuinely integrated student experience support teams, perhaps organised across the university on a hub/spoke model, are becoming much more common, and innovative ways of working present opportunities for efficiency and service improvement. For some institutions there is a significant shift away from their traditional model of local personal/academic tutoring supplemented by stand-alone centralised services.

 

   5. Development or transformation?

Many universities have embarked on campus ‘transformation’ projects of various kinds, often associated with new IT systems or serious capital investment, and frequently there is a direct connection into the student experience.   Harnessing the opportunities presented both by space and IT can prove a stretching leadership challenge, when pushing the boundaries of current and future student needs.  Whether or not the student experience is touched by ‘transformation’ efforts, effective engagement with student representatives is vital when considering fitness for purpose of matters such as policy, regulation, procedure – and the institution’s array of services supporting a holistic HE experience.

    6. How do you know?

Evaluating impact in the student experience is a contested topic, considering the range of views on the validity of indicators like the National Student Survey, degree and employability outcomes, not to mention topics like teaching intensity and learning gain.  Perhaps unsurprisingly some universities struggle to promote a strategic approach in this area – an uncoordinated plethora of monitoring and evaluation is experienced by students as survey overload.  The challenge around genuinely useful management information links back to my first strategic question about governance, thinking of the ways in which an institution can articulate – and convincingly evidence – its student experience with stakeholders.

If these questions seem relevant in your context, where might you look to find resources to help you respond during 2019?  I am concluding this short blog with three practical suggestions:

  • UK professional organisations like AUA, AMOSSHE, ARC, Advance HE and AHUA offer valuable publications, events, training and networking opportunities for individuals, teams and whole institutions. Might you have the opportunity to engage further with these organisations in the year ahead?
  • Some universities find it important to build in an external perspective, either informally via professional networks, or more formally through engaging an external consultant, or using a search firm to support a new leadership appointment.   Thinking of the student experience, how could you draw on expertise outside the institution in the year ahead?
  • Lastly an international footnote – in the area of the student experience the US higher education system often stands out as an instructive point of comparison for the much smaller UK sector. US-based organisations like NASPA, and the web-based studentaffairs.com, offer a huge range of resources, typically well-grounded in research and professional practice.  The international student affairs association IASAS runs a global e-mentoring scheme which might particularly interest those new to leadership positions in the student experience.   How might you extend your international connections to support an improved student experience in the year ahead?

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