We need to talk… to students

A group of students working in a groupStudents lie at the heart of our higher education institutions. And it is the success of its students that will determine a university’s ability to thrive. In the third of our series about integrated thinking and reporting, Simon Perks asks how can universities better understand the needs of their students and how can students engage in a productive discussion about the ‘value’ that a university education represents?

Advance HE is looking at how higher education insititutions (HEIs) are taking an holistic approach to stakeholder engagement as part of the integrated thinking and reporting project (IT&R). Ten HEIs are participating in this pilot project and recently met to consider the need for students to engage in discussions and decisions around value creation and its reporting.

Andrew Connolly, chief financial officer at the University of Exeter says that the reason Exeter is involved in this project is because the sector has “consistently failed to convey to students how research and inspired teaching creates value, and by the way, measuring it is even harder”.

These were among the issues discussed at the recent IT&R workshop when the project participants set out to explore how they can use the principles of the international integrated reporting framework to communicate more effectively with students and other stakeholders. You can read more about putting all stakeholders at the heart of value creation here.

“The first thing to realise,” explained Rhys Dart, chief executive of the Students’ Union at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, “is that there is no such thing as ‘the student perspective’.

“All students are different and they all have differing views. They value different things. And they make decisions in different ways.”

Furthermore, says Rhys, your students probably do not read your annual report. Instead, prospective and current students get information from online chatrooms, National Student Survey results, Teaching Excellence (and Student Outcomes) Framework (TEF) rating, university guides and league tables. They also seek advice from parents, peers, older siblings, teachers and school careers advisers – some of whom may even be alumni of your institution.

The problem, suggests the group, is that HEIs have very little direct control over any of these channels of communication. And most of them provide little in the way of context to explain why, for example, you got a bronze in the TEF or why your staff-to-student ratio is so low. It is through your own communications with prospective, current and even past students, that you can provide the vital contextual information that will bring your institution to life.

It may be your prospectus, your website, your social media feeds, promotional videos, virtual tours, your strategic plan or even your annual report. But if your communications are going to have an impact, they need to focus on the things that are important to your students. And these may not be the things that are important to you.

So you need to find out what is important to your students. Consider the following:

  • What factors did they take into account when making their decision about where to study?
  • Whose advice did they seek?
  • What do they think about their current course?
  • Do they feel that it represents a valuable investment of their time and resources?
  • Would they recommend their course or institution to others?

Various organisations have already undertaken research in this area, including the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), Universities UK and, most recently, the Office for Students. But participants in the IT&R project questioned whether students are genuinely able to make an informed assessment of the long-term value of their studies as opposed to just a short-term decision based on a more narrow definition of value.

This is not to say, however, that universities should not seek out and listen carefully to the views of their students and their student union colleagues. Indeed, if institutions want to improve their teaching activities, then there really is no substitute for engaging proactively, positively and effectively with their own student and alumni body.

Which is where IT&R comes in. Because with its focus on thinking holistically about how a university creates value for its students and other stakeholders in the longer term, it represents a way for institutions to change the nature of the conversation. Away from short-term factors like contact hours and the cost of the campus bus service, and towards the longer-term impact of a university education on a student’s personal, social, intellectual and employment prospects.

So, more effective engagement with students might be:

  • Clarity about who you are engaging with, whether this is prospective students, current students, alumni or a mixture of all three
  • Time spent building trust between the university and its students, shown through your actions, as well as in your words, that you have their best interests at heart
  • Use of communications channels that are relevant to them
  • Capture the full range of voices, not just those which shout the loudest
  • Fully engage with your Students’ Union, ask them to contribute to research, to collate student opinion, and to help you capture and review feedback
  • Above all, show your students that you trust and empower student representatives.

The critical thing is to maintain continuity, listen to what your students are telling you, and engage with them before decisions are taken. Because while your students may not speak with one voice, they do all have a voice. And even if you do not listen to what they are saying, others will. Your students are your ambassadors to the world. And their success is your success.

Read: Putting all stakeholders at the heart of value creation
Read: Are governors facing information overload?

You can find out more about integrated thinking and reporting at the IT&R conference on Tuesday 11 September. Contact Kim Ansell for more information.
Simon Perks has written two “Getting to Grips With” guides for Advance HE: Getting to Grips With Finance and Getting to Grips with Efficiency. He is the founder of Sockmonkey Consulting.