Robert Stoneman from GlobalData looks at how the UK can offer a unique and sought-after student experience during Brexit uncertainty
Record tuition fees and a removal of a cap on places mean students are firmly in the driving seat when choosing where to study. As a result, expectations have grown and universities have been forced to come to terms with the fact that students are increasingly customers as well as learners. Brexit looks set to muddy the waters by putting additional pressure on the attractiveness of UK universities to foreign students. Therefore, the question remains whether the UK is doing enough in focussing on the student experience.
Students increasingly see themselves as customers with value for money increasingly a major issue. Worryingly, the Higher Education Policy Institute found that the proportion of students believing their course offered poor or very poor value for money has more than doubled in the last five years. Therefore, in the push to expand student numbers, universities must not lose sight of the fact that students continue to value a unique and personal relationship with their institution.
Insufficient staff contact time remains a key complaint, especially for degrees in the humanities due to historically low amounts of class time and a high degree of independent learning. To combat this, powerful new technologies can play a role. For instance, development of learning analytics across a range of student datasets can provide a more holistic picture of each individual. Crucially, it can identify those most in need of support. This can then be targeted to where it is most needed as opposed to wasting extra time and resources on students more than able and happy to learn with minimal support. This will boost both student satisfaction and retention rates, the latter more important than ever due to the potential loss of revenue for every dropout.
For international students, the UK remains a world-leading destination. However, post-Brexit, UK universities are becoming more concerned not enough is being done to maintain this. Recent figures show the number coming to the UK has fallen by 5% this year, offset only by a small rise of 2% in those coming from the rest of the world. This highlights a growing perception abroad that the UK is less tolerant of international students since the Brexit vote. Worryingly Theresa May has shown little willingness to set the record straight. Although she has guaranteed continued funding for EU students beginning courses in 2018/19, she remains insistence international students be included in net migration figures which she has pledged to reduce to the 10,000s.
Such a continued policy could have a disastrous impact on the attractiveness of UK universities abroad. However, her position is far from ‘strong and stable’. Recent figures demonstrate that just 4,600 international students overstayed their visas last year, not the 100,000 claimed. Furthermore, a recent ComRes poll, on behalf of Universities UK, found most members of the public do not view students as immigrants and believe more should be able to come to the UK in the future. Universities must maintain pressure if they are to force a change in policy.