It’s no exaggeration to say that established student satisfaction ratings, like the yearly Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education College rankings, have become compulsory reading for all university administrators and faculty. Yet these surveys are not without their critics.
Are they reliable barometers of teaching quality and academic merit, or are they really measuring a different set of variables all together, such as student enjoyment driven by class leniency? And can a clear understanding of the quality of student experience and the true value of their academic pursuits be gathered in one annual survey? Critics suggest that it can’t, and that a more agile and responsive approach to harvesting student feedback is sorely needed...
Another problem exists though, and that's the growing student despondency to the many attempts to measure their satisfaction. There's certainly a need to review the approach and develop one that's more sustainable.
Getting it right
Growing numbers of institutions in higher education are becoming increasingly hostile to the reductionistic approach to college rankings published in magazines like US News, which wield enormous influence over where students choose to attend. This was reflected in a letter from the US academic excellence watchdog, the Educational Conservancy, which was jointly signed by a huge number of US college presidents.
The letter, published in 2007, urged other presidents to boycott such media-driven surveys. It's a concern that continues to this day, with recent new studies fueling the debate. But what if we were to sample student experience on a more continuous basis, using more organic and easy-to-access methods of collecting student feedback?
To avoid despondency and keep students engaged in the feedback loop, communication and agility in responsiveness are important factors, and so is time. A major new study of 600 current students and graduates of U.S. universities found that those institutions that focused on enhancing student satisfaction and attachment on a long-term basis outperformed those who focused predominantly on prestige, significantly strengthening their brand reputation and recruitment attractiveness in the process. Published in the August 2016 edition of the Journal of Business Research, the study (The role of brand attachment in higher education) encompassed the satisfaction and attachment not only of current students but also graduates who had progressed into their careers.
Teaching quality was a significant parameter in student ratings, but so too were campus facilities, social life, atmosphere and employment opportunities. These deepened students’ feelings of connectedness to their university, which was sustained amongst graduates whose universities continued to make efforts to solicit their views and keep them connected to the institution.
Certainly, universities that view students as ‘customers’ who experience the ‘brand’ of an institution, are going to greater lengths in tracking their opinions. For example, one institution employs a customer experience consultancy and uses touchscreen kiosks, countertop tablets and online surveys to get same-day feedback on events and new initiatives. In this way, a near constant stream of opinion is obtained and relayed to relevant departments.
Clearly, technology can help in this long-term endeavour: disposing of cumbersome paper questionnaires and emails, and opting instead for rapid-response methods.
The way forward
We’re undoubtedly getting a lot of things right: the prestigious QS World University Rankings found that U.S. universities dominated the subjects league table, leading in 31 of the 42 subjects monitored (the closest rival was the UK, leading on just eight of the subjects). But there’s no room for complacency: the latest ICEF i-graduate Agent Barometer found that of over 1,000 agents from 108 countries polled, 67 percent rated the US 'very attractive' in 2016. That sounds good, but it represents a decline from the 77 percent achieved in 2015.
Agile, easily accessible and rapidly responsive sampling techniques enabled by digital technologies offer much promise, as results discussed above demonstrate. With these techniques, valid feedback can continue to be pooled and acted upon while survey fatigue becomes a thing of the past. Most importantly, student satisfaction and accomplishment can both continue to rise.
The above is a shortened version of a recent Lorensbergs Higher Education briefing available here.