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How would you choose a university?

Posted by Becky Hartnup on 15 January, 2020

Frustrated student at laptopThe start of the New Year is a busy time for Britain’s A-level students.

The main deadline for UK university applications is January 15th. And for students across the UK, it is the culmination of soul searching (and googling) to put together their shortlist.

This year, for the first time, I experienced this process as a parent. What I learned intrigued me and VitalSource have supported me in digging deeper as part of their new ‘Focus on…’ series.

As an edtech consultant, there is a huge focus on buzz words like ‘student satisfaction’, ‘efficacy’ and ‘learning gain'. Engaging with the university selection process first-hand, I expected to encounter the same familiar issues.  However, at open days across the UK, talking to students and listening to the conversations around me, I was surprised by how different their priorities were. And this wasn’t just due to being dazzled by shiny new accommodation blocks or because they were sucked in to debates on the impact of unconditional offers. Despite being weighed down with prospectuses and rankings information, young people appear to have a huge information gap regarding what university will actually be like. This gap could help explain drop-out rates and why students are consistently less happy and more anxious than other young people.

To find out more, I dug into industry reports and papers, but I also wanted to hear from the students themselves. From September 2019 through to December, I carried out a series of in-depth interviews. I spoke to applicants about how they were making their selections; their processes, their priorities, their underlying concerns. I met current students and recent graduates and asked them about their experiences at university. I asked how they had made their selection, and if they felt they’d considered the right factors.

Through the various sources, six key clusters or attributes emerged: Reputation, Career Impact, Teaching Quality, Support Services, Location, and Belonging. The importance of each cluster changes as students move through the different stages of the university journey.  Reputation and Career impact appear more important during the selection phase. Teaching Quality and Support Services become more important for current students. Location and Belonging are important throughout.

This change appears to be driven by everyday events in student’s lives. It is impossible for sixth formers to imagine life after A Levels, let alone anticipate what will matter to them once they have left home and stepped into the unknowns of university. Of course, they don’t imagine they will be taught by lecturers who are disinterested. They don’t expect to feel lonely and unsupported. And, if things go wrong, they confidently expect robust processes to put them right quickly. Once at university, they discover these experiences are common. And it is only when they reach university that they fully understand what they need - what good provision and poor provision look like, and how to describe them.

Increasingly technology is giving sixth-formers a sneak preview of university life. Universities are using Instagram to engage with students in their own space. For example, Royal Holloway University created a student-life playlist for YouTube and ran Virtual Open Days. The University of Bath ran web chats and student Instagram take-overs. As well as connecting students, social media provides channels for universities to provide information, show off their location and make potential applicants feel as though they are already part of a community. Open days and taster lectures can be supplemented by forums like The Student Room where current students answer the questions applicants would never think to ask. This eWOM(electronic word of mouth) has the potential to change the student decision making process and bring recruitment and retention goals closer.

If you were a student in 2020, what would help you to choose the right university?

Keep an eye out on LinkedIn for the full research paper, coming soon!

Topics: Students, academic leadership, higher education, career, research, university rankings, ucas

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