Trying to come up with a nuanced view of ‘Value for Students’

Value for students is a hot topic.  In this blog Eric Stoller discusses how enhancing a student’s experience can add value to their investment as a paying customer.

It seems that everywhere you look, there’s an article about ‘the student experience’ or ‘adding value for students.’ The polarisation that these phrases bring about can be quite intense. On one hand, you have the ‘it’s a good thing’ camp and on the other, an often critical and/or negative (often justified) assessment of what these phrases actually mean for higher education.

As a foreigner who now lives and works in the UK, to say that my perspective is skewed on the matter would be an understatement. My university roots come from the United States where universities/colleges (synonyms across the pond) emphasise the student experience as being the holy grail of university enterprise.

It makes sense in the American context of higher education for two distinct reasons. Firstly, the student has been sat at the center of US HE for a very long time. Apologies to academics and professional staff, but in the US context, that is the reality. Secondly, the marketisation of US HE has been as fundamental to the fabric of universities as capitalism is at the core of the United States. The student experience has been part of the ‘sell’ for US institutions for a very long time.

Now, in the UK, things are different. The student experience is all about providing value for students. After all, students are paying a lot of money for their education and a few amenities shouldn’t be too much to ask for, right? And, I’m not talking about lazy rivers, movie theatres in residence halls, or a decrease in academic rigor. This is truly about the experience of being a student at a university in 2018 and beyond

“Student experience” one of the most empty, vacuous phrases in contemporary HE culture. I’d like to replace it with smaller class sizes, more books in libaries, more staff on permanent contracts, more time for everyone to read, think, write and yes, talk!”

Jonathan Ellis@JonathanSEllis

7:22 PM – Jun 9, 2018 · Belper, England

I get that for a lot of us, our student experience at university was different. For some, the cost was minimal and the expectation of anything that matches today’s level experience was nowhere to be found. However, most of us enjoy heating, technologies that are human friendly, and a sense that a significant monetary investment brings with it more than just the pure delight of a sage on the stage lecture experience.

Perhaps it’s my post grad course that fuzzies my thinking about the student experience? At the core of my thinking about HE, the student experience, and value for students is something called ‘Learning Reconsidered (PDF).’ This document, published in 2004, was a paradigm shift for how universities conceptualised the entire student experience:

Learning Reconsidered is an argument for the integrated use of all of higher education’s resources in the education and preparation of the whole student. It is also an introduction to new ways of understanding and supporting learning and development as intertwined, inseparable elements of the student experience. It advocates for transformative education – a holistic process of learning that places the student at the center of the learning experience.

Viewing the student experience as something that should be nurtured and enhanced might be a foreign concept for some, but it requires a nuanced approach that embraces the student journey both within the classroom and beyond.

I get that the student experience and the value that it brings for students has gotten twisted by neo-liberal ideologies. However, even if we critique and deconstruct all of the motivations/incentives for student experience initiatives, there’s still the simple fact that students exist in the same real world in which we reside. That world is complex. Students deserve respect just like anyone else at a university and part of respecting students is via the provision of services that add to their overall time at university.

For example, if you cringe when someone speaks about integrating employability into student experience conversations, you may just want to pause for a moment and realise that many students are indeed going to uni to further their future career aspirations. This does not detract from their learning or academic pursuits. It’s a combination of things that equates to the aforementioned university journey. Higher education does not exist to fuel ‘the machine,’ but it absolutely impacts whether or not students can feed themselves in the context of today’s economy.

Today’s student experience is made up of a plethora of services, amenities, technologies, physical spaces, and caretakers. Whilst most people struggle with the idea that students are customers, the truth is that some services within a university require a business-to-consumer mentality. Finding the grey areas within that context is where learning happens. Is a student a customer when they’re actively learning within a classroom? Probably not. Is a student acting as a customer when they are buying a coffee at the library cafe? Absolutely. Are students customers AND learners when they are applying to university? Definitely.

Finally, here’s another example of how enhancing the student experience can add value for students at university. When most universities take stock of their digital engagement efforts, there’s an amazing amount of distributed diversity within all of their digital channels. From social media sites/apps to a wide array of webpages, universities can utilise digital engagement to enhance the student experience via multiple, educationally relevant ways.

Sure, marketing and communications might not seem like an educational aspect of the student experience, but it’s the first step, the first interaction, and in some ways, these digital connections form the basis of a student’s transition from one educational space to another. It’s about digital wellness, maturation, fluency, literacy and capability.

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Digital engagement is part of the student experience. How is your university embedding/utilising social media for student success

The student experience can be amplified and furthered by way of digital engagement. This has nothing to do with selling or an ideological schism that ‘value’ is something to be avoided. It’s about the person, the student, those who we value most. The student experience adds value to a university community because it’s centred around making things better for the learner as well as for those who teach them.


Eric Stoller
Higher education writer, consultant and speaker