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What do students want from their university?

​This month saw the results of the annual HEPI/HEA Student Academic Experience Survey make the headlines. Value for money was highlighted as a key issue, with less students than last year saying that their course is good value (35%).

The results highlight that the downward trend in perceptions of value is not linked to poorer quality. What the report does suggest is that value is influenced by a ‘complex combination of factors’, including a shift in what students expect from their university now that fees have increased.

Clearly, this has implications for the establishment of the OfS. The new regulator is being set up to take a ‘student-centred’ approach to regulation, with a statutory duty to promote value for money. So, it will be important for the OfS to consider the factors that affect student perceptions of value, and it will need to acknowledge how critical student trust is – universities need to maintain confidence that they are acting in students’ best interests.

In order to help inform the development of the OfS at this critical stage, Universities UK has carried out research with students to understand what they want, and most value, from their relationship with their university. Our report sets out recommendations for how universities and the OfS can work together to address student’s priorities in this new landscape.

The key findings

  • Students value the collaborative and educational relationship they have with their university. This is based on high levels of trust and students want this relationship to be personal.
  • Most students recognise that the relationship between students and universities is different to a 'traditional' transactional consumer relationship.
  • Students see themselves as co-producers of their student experience, but they do have expectations of their course and lecturers.
  • Continuity and consistency are valued highly by students, and institutional or course closure is concerning for most students.
  • Course changes are not perceived as inherently negative; what is important is that universities communicate these changes and treat students fairly.
  • Student perceptions of value for money are influenced by many different factors. These can be broadly split into two areas: degree outcomes and the process of studying for a degree.

What this means for the sector

The OfS

The OfS need to recognise the unique nature of the student university relationship and build on the high levels of trust that students have in their university. Our research found that 79% of students valued their relationship with their university, with 87% saying that their university treats its students fairly and 62% saying that their university cares about their best interests.

When we compared this with other organisations and institutions, universities came second only to NHS doctors (73% said NHS doctors care about their best interests). 61% said their secondary school cared about their best interests, almost the same figures as universities, suggesting that higher education is perceived by students as aligned with educational rather than consumerist values. 

The level of concern that students have about the idea of a university being closed shows how important students’ choices are to them. It will be important that the OfS has robust registration conditions to protect students from poor quality or transient providers that are unable to deliver on their promises.


An important component of protecting the trust that students have in their university is universities' ability to keep the promises that have informed students' choices on where and what to study. This will help to maintain trust and confidence while providing consistency and continuity throughout their studies. This includes promises made at the application stage, as well as clarity of policy and regulations that apply to students throughout their degree.

Where changes to courses are necessary, universities should have an effective process in place to manage this. This includes ensuring that terms and conditions are clear and fair, so that only legitimate course changes occur. By ensuring that an effective process is in place and having an appropriate timeline for informing students and enacting changes, upheaval is likely to be minimised and universities will be more likely to retain the trust of their students.

A unique relationship

Students and universities are extremely diverse and determining what students want and how best to provide it can be challenging.  This research shows that students regard their relationship with their university as unique. Students emphasise engagement, and their personal and educational development both during and beyond the course, as priorities. Students also place a high value on being assured that they have made a good long-term choice of university, they are looking for: an institution that cares about their best interests; supports them through their studies; provides the facilities they need and offers guidance as they begin to make choices about their future careers.

What is also clear is that when compared with other customer relationships, students expect something different. Central to this is the trust and confidence that students have in their university to support them in getting the most from their studies, and delivering on their promises. The challenge for the OfS and the sector will be to maintain a supportive operating environment that protects students and allows a positive educational relationship with their university to flourish.

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Runcible Spoon
Runcible Spoon says:
10 July 2017 at 08:24

Some interesting outcomes and some interesting insight to what students want from their university. The  fact that students value the collaborative and educational relationship they have with their university and see themselves as co-producers of their student experience is encouraging. Now we have established what students want, perhaps a similar survey could be conducted asking lecturers what they expect in return from their students-in terms of attendance, engaging weith independent thought and study etc

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