What distinguishes one University from the other? What are the key unique selling points?
As the market for international student recruitment became increasingly competitive, it also became more and more important for higher education institutions to make a strong and distinctive first impression. As the HEI marketplace becomes more crowded, what will make a particular University stand out from the crowd?
We probably all know the answer to this question. It is more than just top-ranked courses or a long-standing reputation for research excellence. It also includes location, atmosphere, community involvement, pedagogical approaches, quality of facilities, and the rather nebulous thing called student experience.
So is it the same now? What impact will the pandemic have? Many institutions are starting to come forward with plans to offer their undergraduate and post-graduate programmes via online methodologies stating that there will be no teaching on campus for at least the first semester. Also, restrictions on travel and the reluctance of students (perhaps driven by the parents of students) to study abroad are likely to have a huge impact on international recruitment.
So we can strip away the location, the atmosphere, quality of facilities and probably most of the community involvement; the thing that may make the difference now could be the quality of the learning experience.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many institutions were putting in place lecture capture and boosting their virtual learning environments, however, the physical aspects of the learning environment and the physical aspects of the student experience still trumped any online attempts. It wasn’t vital that students attended lectures, they could catch up via online resources, however, the packaging around these still really mattered. The student experience was becoming more and more important.
So what now? At the moment the physical environment may be partially out of the equation as students study hunched over their laptop are either accessing online courses or attending Zoom lectures. This is bound to have an impact on the experience.
Whilst we know that the quality of teaching has been a differentiating factor for a little while now and the TEF rankings are starting to have an impact on student choices, we also know that the TEF assessment looked at nationally collected data on:
- Student satisfaction – How satisfied students are with their course of study, as measured by responses to the National Student Survey.
- Continuation – The proportion of students that continue their studies from year to year, as measured by data collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
- Employment outcomes – What students do after they graduate, as measured by responses to the Destination of Leavers Survey
These assessments would have been influenced by the opinions of students on physical teaching and interactions with the academics and not just on the online experience.
So what will be the differentiating factors be now? It is likely to be the online experience, the attractiveness and interactivity of the online learning, the way the content is brought to life on the screen, the way that the topic is enthralling and engaging via the web.
It may be argued that the content of an undergraduate degree from institution to institution may be broadly similar and it was the interaction with the academic faculty, the quality of interaction and the stimulation gained from the learning experience that really helped to forge the reputation of the course. Although we also must not forget the impact that research-led teaching can have.
Nevertheless, the move to put courses online will level the playing field and the quality of the experience will depend on the wizardry of the learning technologists. Those who were already experimenting with online pedagogical approaches, those who were focused on teaching and learning may have a slight advantage. Will those institutions whose USPs have been the stalwarts of research-led teaching and traditional delivery models be able to pivot their approach sufficiently? Will those institutions with a strong teaching and learning emphasis be in a better position? Will the playing field be levelled. Will the gleaming spires and the student traditions and the flashy facilities, labs and swanky student accommodation have as much sway for the next year or so?
It may be a couple of years before we know the answer; however, it is likely that international student numbers will be suppressed for a while and it will be difficult for all students to access the full student experience. So in the short term, it may be the quality of online delivery that will be the driving USP.