This guest blog comes from Jon Wakeford, Group Director, Strategy and Corporate Communications, at the University Partnerships Programme (UPP). It was originally presented as a speech at the 2017 HEPI Annual Conference at Regent’s University London on 7 June.

With the numerous political and economic upheavals taking place in the UK and beyond, there remains significant uncertainty both in terms of the future landscape of higher education and in the changing needs of students.

Universities currently appear to be doing a very good job at providing a higher education closely tailored to the needs of their students. While we know that the overall level of student satisfaction in the National Student Survey (NSS) varies between institutions, an overall course satisfaction rate of 86 percent in 2016 was a very impressive achievement – one that would be the envy of other industries. However, like other industries, the UK higher education sector cannot be complacent and needs to keep improving its complex and nuanced offering.

In seeking to create a university for students, ensuring that each element of that journey is focused on resolving the key issues faced by students, remains critical. The different phases of the student journey should not be taken in isolation from each other, rather they should ideally be fused together, with the infrastructure of services supporting teaching flowing in parallel. A university for students should, therefore, be one which establishes a relationship for life. This includes:

• assisting in the process of becoming a student;

• providing innovative approaches to the delivery of teaching and research while the student is enrolled; and

• maintaining the relationship with the student and the local economy to the benefit of all parties.

In thinking about how a university for students should assist a student before they enrol, we need to recognise that each unique institutional experience is co-produced in the interaction between a student and a university and, increasingly, a university’s partners. We need to start with the formation of that relationship, for it is here that the relationship is cemented; founded in communication and the management of expectations. The UPP Student Experience Report reveals that approximately two thirds of applicants worry about how they will fit in to university life. They are unsure about what to expect and a large proportion say that the transition from school to university is a source of considerable stress.

While the efforts made to communicate expectations of how this relationship will work, by university outreach and in the mentoring activities of organisations like the Brightside Trust are considerable, there remain mismatches between expectation and what is delivered. One policy initiative more universities might adopt – to create a university for students – might be the formalisation of the role of Pro Vice Chancellor for Transition. Were this more widespread, it may provide a still greater focus on guiding new students in independent study and living.

When a student is enrolled, a university for students needs to ensure that that student does not become lost or isolated either academically or, indeed, socially in a residential setting. Well-being and mental health must be a significant consideration when designing a university for students. So, in addition to specific roles focusing on transition and helping students to experience university life ahead of enrolment, a generally more joined-up approach between the academic and social/residential elements of university is required. This includes an element of improving the signposting of existing services, but also a need for a wider understanding of the pressures students face.

In the case of UPP, for example, we ensure that our teams in student accommodation are trained to understand the pressures students face and recognise the signs of isolation, anxiety and depression to ensure that either we and/or the university can intervene if and when required. The UPP Foundation, a charitable trust created by UPP, has recently published a student mental health guidance pack in collaboration with Student Minds following a pilot project at Nottingham Trent University. Such initiatives inform UPP and hopefully also the sector’s approach to student mental health specifically in a residential context – a topic which HEPI has previously addressed through its report The invisible problem? by Poppy Brown. Mental health support initiatives are an active method for addressing issues of retention, but need to be more widely used, recognising the social weight of expectation that students so often find themselves dealing with.

A university for students would also provide a rigorous focus on the third core element of the student journey, namely assisting students to make the best use of the benefits of higher study and on easing the transition into employment and post-university life. More and more – and correctly in my view – the student experience is being viewed as a long-term social product. By this I mean there is an implicit expected return on investment in terms of the life-long benefits that higher education can and should bring, not to mention the establishment of a life-long relationship between an institution and its students.

Universities can use their strengths and attributes to support their graduates and alumni in significant ways. Universities can employ their economic and political power in their regions and local economies. We see this in regional hubs and seed funding for start-ups in incubators. Such initiatives and programmes can provide sustainable and strategic advantages to both students and universities and I think that this role of a university should be placed high on the agenda when we think about how to create a university for students.

Universities do, of course, have intersecting roles and priorities and this will always be the case. Creating a university for students therefore means ensuring the positive impacts and reach of an institution are cast across all parts of the student journey. From the work we have done, it is clear that universities have both great brand value but, more importantly, brand loyalty and I think it is this that should encourage institutions to be more innovative in the use of their strategic economic position, to establish life-long relationships with their students.