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Encouraging lifelong academic relationships in an era of transience

To members of other generational groups, millennials and GenZ are often seen as inconsistent or flighty; too quick to move on when they don’t like a job and lacking the apparently in-built ‘loyalty’ of the generations that precede them. Deserved or not, that reputation seems fated to follow this cohort, but what does it mean for higher education institutions trying to foster an extended academic relationship?

New research reveals that one in two Australian students would consider enrolling at multiple universities if discrete subjects undertaken at those institutions could be credited to a single degree, suggesting that allegiance to a specific college or university is simply not a given in 2019.

The study, commissioned by enterprise Software as a Service company TechnologyOne, surveyed over 1,000 university students across Australia to understand what students want from their university experience, including; suitability of degrees and courses on offer, preferred learning modes, institutional preferences, enrolment practices and the influence of technology on the overall student experience.

Sentimentality a thing of the past

Pragmatism is alive and well in this generation, with a greater number of respondents citing ‘pathways to employment after graduation’, ‘location and proximity’ and ‘accepted into course of choice’ as the top three reasons for attending their current university, significantly ahead of ‘university culture and reputation’ or ‘family history of attending’.

Less influenced by nostalgia and tradition, this markedly different generational student view spells good things for institutions outside Australia’s sandstone universities. There is significant opportunity to gain a foothold through differentiation, which should be cemented in the ability to deliver on student expectations in an increasingly digital world.

Digitised delivery

One takeaway from the study stood out; today’s student expects to walk a seamlessly digitised education path, from enrollment through graduation and beyond. As members of the information age, students tend to value highly both technology and its innovative implementation.

When asked to categorise the use of technology and innovation specifically within their current course, one in ten said it was ‘non-existent’ or ‘outdated and ineffective’. Just under one third (30%) said the use of technology was ‘functional, but uninspired’ with another third suggesting they were starting to see some new innovations. Only one quarter of total participants said they consistently witnessed innovative and progressive technology initiatives within their course.

To ascertain the actual importance of technology and innovation on the student experience, study participants were asked if they would consider switching to an alternate university if it provided better levels of technology and innovation. More than half (54%) indicated that they would consider doing so, indicating its relatively high level of importance in the overall educational experience.

"One takeaway from the study stood out; today’s student expects to walk a seamlessly digitised education path, from enrollment through graduation and beyond."

Method matters

The face of learning is undoubtedly influenced by technology advances, though current directional trends may not follow previous predictions around the internet and its potential influence on remote learning. The survey asked students to state their current study mode, then nominate their ideal learning method (or combination of methods).

Fifty eight percent of study participants currently receive all course content on-campus, just over one quarter study via a blended scheme that combines on-campus and online learning, and a further 15% undertake study online only.

When participants were asked to nominate their ideal mode of study, those numbers shifted; just under half (48%) nominated a blended learning program, and on-campus only dropped to just under a third (31%). One in five said they’d prefer to study at a virtual campus only, forgoing face-to-face learning entirely.

While there is a significant swing away from the current on-campus majority, it is not the overwhelming online-only landslide that many predicted would be the result of living in an increasingly digital world. The desire for blended learning is in keeping with this generation’s expectation that technology be used to enhance the overall student experience, but it must equally carry across to the on-campus realm.

Campuses are still seen as an important ‘social experience’ of university life for many students, which is why many institutions are investing heavily in technology-rich assets, such as bus ports, autonomous vehicles and smart screens.

Diminishing by degrees?

Attitudinal differences aside, there are other prevailing external factors with the potential to influence higher education enrolment numbers.

Some of the world’s top traditional graduate employers have implemented substantial change in employment criteria in recent years. For some (like KPMG) that means becoming degree-agnostic. The company says while university degrees are important and show a commitment to thinking, it is not uncommon to hire graduates for jobs they are not technically qualified for in terms of the degrees they hold.

For other employers, like Ernst & Young, the change was even more significant, with the UK arm of the company completely removing the requirement for a degree from its employment entry criteria. It backed the decision by stating that there is “no evidence that success at university correlates with achievement in later life”, reinforcing the demand for stronger industry engagement and industry-influenced curriculum elements.

The decision by many traditional graduate employers to focus on digital literacy, commercial acumen and soft skills above academic achievement has the potential to considerably change the landscape in the higher education sector, making the development of a sticky student relationship an even higher priority.

In an era of enrolment-based funding, colleges, universities and other institutions increasingly seek to develop a lifelong link, from undergrad to postgrad and beyond. Achieving that means not only understanding the shifting expectations of today’s students, but increasingly offering the tools and technologies required to deliver the optimised learning experience they demand.

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The survey says...

In 2019, TechnologyOne conducted a study with 1,000 current Australian undergraduate and postgraduate students about what they want out of their university experience.

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