What are students looking for in a university? Paul Humphreys has the ear of students – as the MD of StudentCrowd, an online review community for students, he’s privy to thousands of reviews of universities, courses and accommodation by the 750,000 students using the site last year. He shares his insights into students’ wants and needs, and we suggest how universities can help meet them through the use of digital technologies.
1. The course
"I could not have chosen a better course! The course content is incredibly interesting, the lecturers are very passionate and any student is welcome to approach them with a question."
StudentCrowd review of University of Aberdeen
All students are, of course, concerned about what they are going to learn, how they are going to learn it and, at the stage of choosing a university, the grades they need to get on it.
Our StudentCrowd reviews suggest that universities are improving their communication around what modules are on offer for courses and are getting better at giving students the information that they need. That teaching will incorporate digital technology – whether reading lists on the VLE or online submission of coursework – is taken as given by today’s students.
Our research finds that students are upbeat about the use of digital technology to support their learning, with around six in ten feeling that use of digital technology on their course results in better understanding, greater independence and allows them to fit learning into their lives more easily.
However, while over 95% had produced work in a digital format, half had never used an educational game or simulation for learning, or a polling device or online quiz to give answers in class, suggesting that more can be done to use technology to make teaching and learning more interactive, collaborative and responsive.
"While I do realise it might sound like a cliche, I actually feel like I belong here."
StudentCrowd review of University of Aberdeen
Students want to feel like they ‘belong’ at a university. That comes across clearly in our data – when students are writing and reading reviews they are keen to know “will I fit in? Are there students there like me?“
When you put yourself in the shoes of a 17 year old who is leaving home for the first time, it’s very natural to be concerned about belonging. There is also anecdotal evidence that many students cite ‘not belonging’ or ‘being lonely’ as a reason when they decide to leave university before the end of their course.
Universities are becoming much more aware of the importance of mental health for students. There are some interesting technologies to aid in that, including using data to alert university staff to students who may be struggling in some way. However, this kind of technology has to be used sensitively. While there is certainly a role for learning analytics in flagging up when a student’s attendance record is dropping, it’s important to intervene in an appropriate and non-intrusive way.
There is also a danger that digital technologies can serve to isolate students. With access to e-books and other e-resources they no longer need to go to the library and mix with other students, they can sit in their study bedroom instead. Take recorded lectures. Imagine you’ve got a 9am lecture and a costly 20-minute bus ride. You can get up, get showered, get dressed and make it in…or you can open your laptop at 11am and watch it instead – with no need to interact with your peers. However, we also know that recorded lectures are very popular with students.
Universities need to decide on an appropriate use of technology to help with belonging alongside encouraging real-world activity to offset any digital isolation.
According to our 2017 student digital experience tracker, on the whole, learners do not believe that the use of digital technology – for example to give access to course resources and recorded lectures – makes them less likely to attend class. However, learners overwhelmingly ask that digital technology does not replace face-to-face teaching as they value the social and collaborative aspects of learning from their lecturers and from their peers.
The digital confidence and capability of teaching staff is significant to students’ overall digital experience. An exciting development is the growth of interest in the idea of the ‘sticky campus’: creating a campus that students want to stick around in, even if they haven’t got a lecture to go to, and which increases students’ feelings of belonging and connectedness.
Universities have a clear role to play in mental health and digital wellbeing, especially when only 67% of students know where to get help if they are being bullied or harassed online and just 57% feel their university helps them to stay safe online.
3. University facilities
"Gill Street South is a great accommodation, the location is very handy as it's central to all the lecture halls."
StudentCrowd review of Gill Street South, Nottingham Trent University
"Excellent wifi, easy to connect to in every bit of the campus."
StudentCrowd review of University of Birmingham
This a huge area and includes factors a university can do relatively little about, such as location, and some that it can, such as the quality of accommodation and state of the campus. I want to focus on what might seem a minor element but is crucial. Wifi.
At StudentCrowd we didn’t have wifi as a review area to begin with but had to add it because so many students were mentioning it in their reviews. It’s a cliché but it’s true: students see superfast wifi as a basic human need. Universities must ensure their students can connect to superfast wifi on all parts of campus.
Most universities now provide free wifi, so that students can connect to the internet on their own device. On campus, many universities offer eduroam, the European-wide wifi service for the academic and research communities, managed by Jisc, while university accommodation is generally served by different providers. Most students report a positive experience - the average rating for university wifi on StudentCrowd is 4.04 out of 5 – and Durham University is top of the ratings.
With students relying on digital devices for study, personal organisation and leisure, it's no wonder they see good wifi connectivity as a key aspect of their study environment. 88% of students use their own laptop and 84% their smartphone as part of their learning.
With an average of 2.72 personal devices per learner, wifi connectivity is an essential service that supports students’ education. Generally, universities are responding well to this challenge, with 80% of students reporting that they have access to reliable wifi at their usual place of study.
"Teaching quality is good, personal tutors always happy to help, content fascinating and you'll almost always get a job straight out of uni."
StudentCrowd review of midwifery, Sheffield Hallam University
Students are, of course, concerned about their job prospects at the end of their course and will use graduate employment data and league tables to help them choose a university. At the other end of the university journey, we are seeing comments from students that institutions do seem to be improving their career services.
A good example is the University of Leicester. Its career service calls all of its graduates just after they graduate and supports each one of them in job hunting. That service helps Leicester graduates and it helps the university to improve their graduate employment rates. More universities could explore that kind of very proactive support.
Universities have a responsibility around employability and ensuring that their graduates are equipped for the digital age and have the digital skills that employers need. Most universities have an employability award in a digital format that they encourage students to complete to ensure that they come out with work-related skills. Some universities are making it a compulsory part of the curriculum.
According to our 2017 student digital experience tracker, students do not feel their courses are preparing them well for the digital workplace: 82% of HE learners feel digital skills will be important in the workplace, but only 50% agree their course prepares them for the digital workplace.
There is work to be done here. Incorporating opportunities to embed digital skills into the curriculum (as well as technology into the delivery) doesn’t only improve the experience for learners, it also enhances the professional development of staff.
5. University performance
"Amazing place, with incredible people. The university is extremely high on league tables and is very academic, however, there is a fantastic balance between work and play!"
StudentCrowd review of University of St Andrews
Students are using league tables to help them to decide which university is for them, especially if they are looking for prestige. But how helpful are the tables really for students? Do students understand where the data comes from and how can they use it to make a decision?
There is a role for crowdsourced review sites, such as StudentCrowd, alongside universities’ own communication and social media channels in helping potential students get an insight into what their chosen university is like, feel reassured about what to expect and prepare themselves for their life at university. Video can be particularly effective when it shows students talking about their real student experience at the university.
Given the importance of league tables and rankings to potential students, it is essential that universities understand the ways in which their data feeds into these rankings.
Through our business intelligence work we’ve collaborated with HESA, the Guardian and the Times to combine both publication’s league table data into one dashboard, making it easier for universities to accurately and rapidly compare and analyse the information.