Bubble wrap and puppies: universities employ engaging communication tactics to enhance student experience

Student experience

Bubble wrap and puppies. Not two things that you would usually associate with students preparing to enter the frantic end of year exam period. However last month the University of Leicester’s student union hit the news with their idea to offer stressed students bubble wrap and dog petting sessions to help them relax as exam season kicks off. More conventional offerings, such as free cups of tea or dedicated quiet revision spaces, are commonplace amongst higher education institutions these days. They are also usually introduced as a result of dialogue with student unions so does this mean that universities are finally beginning to understand the importance of relevant communication with their students?

At a recent Times Higher Education (THE) roundtable debate, involving twelve experts from across UK academia, the topic of engaging students and making them feel like ”partners” was high on the agenda. A lot of work is undertaken by universities in trying to engage the student population in “the life of the university” and being more in touch with their needs.  Students have also long yearned for more communication and engagement from lecturers, as well as the hierarchy within universities.

Just as a business must find out the needs of its customers to keep them happy, so must universities maintain meaningful communication with their students to keep them satisfied. With the introduction of £9,000 university fees, students are becoming increasingly consumer-like, as universities look to provide the best services and stand out from the competition. Naturally this will mean that students will gain more influence, whether through their representatives on student unions, through direct feedback to the university itself or via the impact they have on rankings. But are universities listening to the specific needs of all their students?

Members of the THE round table debate argued that UK universities were not listening to individual students, but instead tailoring their service to the majority of students. This majority is likely to be undergraduates in the 18-21 age range, with the needs of other students being ignored. Older or international students are more likely to drop out, often because they don’t integrate into the university or feel that the institution is not meeting their specific needs. It is interesting to note that one of the categories in the Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey 2013 was titled ‘personal requirements catered for’, showing that students are now expecting their university to provide for their personal needs. There is a lot written about student experience and satisfaction surveys but does student opinion lead to any real difference at a deeper level?

Most leading universities hold an internal annual students opinion survey, alongside prompting students to participate in the national student surveys, seeking to gauge the mood of their student population.  The results of these surveys have led to investment in course materials, refurbishment and improvement to library facilities, student support and improved connectivity across campus.

Accommodation is another issue high on the agenda for university students; survey results have led to improved common room facilities, longer office opening hours and an increase in recycling opportunities. A New Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and Higher Education Academy (HEA) survey recently sought to look at the top priorities of students and apart from the obvious reduction to fees, students’ main priorities were concerned with having more contact with their university.

Students prioritised more teaching hours, smaller class sizes, better training for lecturers and better learning facilities. They want more interaction and communication with universities to improve their student experience and feel part of a community. Student unions are an important link between individual students and universities, voicing the concerns of the students that they are elected to represent.

Bubble wrap and puppies may seem like a trivial example of this communication but it suggests a brave and confident institution that is not afraid of using more controversial but engaging strategies to connect with students. As competition grows, the views of their “customers” will be an increasingly important point of difference that give universities a competitive edge over other institutions in their space.