What can data tell us about student wellbeing?

By Leo Hanna, Executive Vice President at TechnologyOne

With 250,000 applicants to universities forecast over next 5 years, UCAS projects that by the end of the decade, we could see up to a million students apply for higher education across the full range of Level 4 and above opportunities. But while universities may soon be flush with applicants, not all is rosy. The level of financial pressure on the sector is increasing, with double-digit inflation squeezing budgets. We work with hundreds of universities around the globe, and we know remaining commercially viable is a talking point in the UK. The undergraduate fee cap in England for example, has barely risen since 2012 – had the fees kept up with inflation, they’d be over £12,000 for this academic year, well above today’s capped £9,250.

And while enrolments are up, universities are facing some of their biggest challenges around student retention. While HESA is yet to publish the latest data around non-continuation rates, anecdotally, a range of research suggests the increasing cost of living is seeing students increasingly consider dropping out of university.

Students are looking for high teaching standards, but not only. The cohorts coming into higher education today are digital natives using platforms like Google, Netflix and Apple Pay to effortlessly integrate into their lives. There are increasing expectations for the wider student experience to be as good as the academic one. Cue the demand for exemplary services and a focus on student wellbeing.

While the marketing engine of a university may be great at attracting students, too often, when students get to campus, their expectations may clash with reality. Advance HE and HEPI’s data suggests only one-in-nine students say their university experience is exactly as they expected it to be.

This can lead to student attrition – a wasted opportunity for the individual who loses the chance to pursue their interests and goals. For the institution, the problem is compounded by losses of pre-committed revenue. And for the university’s reputation too. By and large, research shows it takes up 12 positive customer experiences to make up for the fallout from just one negative experience.

The universities TechnologyOne works with know that managing the student relationship isn’t just about getting them in – it’s also about keeping them engaged. We know from campuses that show dedication to student wellbeing that it increases academic performance, retention, and graduation rates. The Office for Students’ Condition B3 coming into effect late last year means that providers must deliver positive outcomes for students on their higher education courses. Considering this, the economics of investing in the measurement of a student’s engagement and well-being add up.

And to ensure they deliver the best possible student experience and the lowest possible attrition rate across all courses; universities invest in a range of platforms that promise to gather data and insights. There are a few issues with this. Namely, wellbeing is complex and must be measured on multiple levels – including the emotional, physical, social, intellectual, and financial dimensions. And what’s often missing is the interconnectedness between such platforms.

In 2022, the University of Lincoln partnered with TechnologyOne to pioneer a brand-new approach to the way student management and student experience is provided in the UK. The university adopted TechnologyOne’s ground-breaking Student Management System, which operates on one purpose-built platform enabling students, academics, administrators and partners to connect through the one application.

This gives Lincoln Uni access to dashboard views of their consolidated student data – from offers made to acceptances and enrolments, they can see a student’s journey from start to finish, and in time to make effective changes that can increase enrolments and improve their university experience.

We know that predicting student attrition requires making sense of multiple data sources – how many terms is the student enrolled for, have they transferred to another program, have they been given an academic warning for failing grades, have they sought support services, are they enrolled fully online?

But in most cases, that data isn’t connected across student-related information, such as academic performance, finance, or health services. Those gaps can limit a university’s ability to spot patterns or risky behaviours that, if caught early, could change the trajectory for that student.

The ability to proactively spot potential student problems is a game-changer for universities such as Lincoln University. Specific activities such as missing classes or failing to turn in assignments are clear indicators of potential issues, yet it’s hard to keep watch on every student and every behaviour. Helping staff proactively identify potentially troubling student engagement as they occur empowers them to make early interventions or put a plan into action that could keep a student enrolled.

In the age of Big Data, collecting it is meaningless if you can’t make sense of it and turn it into an actionable insight to better a student’s experience, and potentially turn them into repeat customers when those chose to further their studies.

There are many pressures on university finances now that institutions are finding hard to control. Attracting students and keeping them engaged should not be one of them.

Publish date

18 Jul 2023


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