Why getting the university digital experience right will attract more international students

“Students expect their university’s digital experiences to be as good as services like Facebook, Amazon or Netflix”

Historically a strong university brand has to a certain extent guaranteed student numbers and in turn high National Student Survey scores, but for the current TikTok generation of students who expect high-quality and personalised digital experiences in every aspect of their lives, their education is no exception.

Yet despite the Covid pandemic accelerating the move to digital, most UK universities are still not offering what students would regard as ‘state of the art’ digital experiences. The result – a digital experience gap between what students expect from their universities and what is being offered.

Students expect their university’s digital experiences to be as good as services like Facebook, Amazon or Netflix.  Our research shows that 91% of students believe that what their university offers in terms of digital services should be as strong as face-to-face lectures and life on the physical campus.

However, lack of funding and operating with mis-matched and clunky legacy technologies means many universities are simply not set up to offer this level of digital experience, even though it now plays a key part in the university selection process.

With more students now studying remotely or via a hybrid approach, and international students basing a large proportion of their university selection decision process on what can be accessed digitally, getting the digital experience right is what will make universities stand out in a crowded marketplace.

University fees are at an all-time high and international students are paying on average £10,000-£26,000 per year in tuition fees alone, so students are looking for real value in their investment. They want digital services that help them perform better academically, manage their wider student life, make them feel a part of the university and maintain their mental wellbeing.

The digital experience also needs to feel personalised to the individual university, incorporating the same university branding that would be seen across a physical campus in the digital space. This strengthens the connection between the physical and digital experience, creating a strong visual identity, and supporting a sense of belonging, even if a student never steps foot on campus.

Digital services go beyond learning

It’s important for universities to recognise that digital services shouldn’t just be about learning. Our research found that 93% of students wanted learning and campus services combined in a complete digital experience including social, cultural, organisational, health and wellbeing services.

Whilst starting life at university is daunting enough in itself, to do so in a new country can be even more of a challenge. International students can be faced with both cultural and language barriers to overcome, and for many it’s their first time away from home with no friends or family to support them. Coupled with hybrid and remote learning, international students may also need additional language support in order to be successful academically – and this as a digital service also needs to be of the highest quality.

From booking a computer in the library, to browsing student accommodation options, to checking when a particular student night out is taking place – these digital services offer a way for students to connect with and communicate with one another in place of, or enhancing, the physical experience. And for international students in particular, this digital community may be their main source of guidance and advice as they try to navigate university life.

Improving digital services shouldn’t be rooted in just academic learning. As important as it is to build peer-to-peer and student-to-staff mentoring and assessment, it’s about creating social connections, enabling access, use and support across the multitude of services on offer. This will help to alleviate feelings of isolation and loneliness and in turn improve onboarding, engagement, retention, continuation, wellbeing, and the whole university experience sentiment.

Universities must continue to develop their digital offering

It’s clear that over the next few years, the digital services universities provide will increasingly affect whether students feel their time at university delivered value for money. And with many UK universities heavily reliant on international students fees when it comes to their financial sustainability, it’s important that they can differentiate themselves to remain an attractive prospect for overseas students.

Universities need to understand exactly what the needs of their students are, and whether they are being met when putting together their digital strategy. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, so it is important to design in inclusivity, accessibility and that more allusive quality of community and belonging for all students whether international or domestic. The focus needs to be on creating the best experience for the students, rather than what best suits the university.

By keeping students at the heart of the digital experience and designing with a diverse and disparate student body in mind, universities can begin to transition to a model of higher education that is not only fit for the 21st century, but also ensures that no student is lost along the way.

About the author: Nicola Hinds is Strategy Director at Great State. Nicola leads the strategy team at Great State, helping define the digital direction for top brands such as the Royal Navy, Honda, Versus Arthritis, and the University of York. With over 18 years’ experience in the industry – working both client and agency side – Nicola previously held marketing and digital roles at British Airways, Lloyds and Barclays.