How one Finnish university is leading the world in student satisfaction

Aalto University, established in 2010, is a new type of fusion university in Finland mixing fields of technology, business, and art & design. With international students making up around 15% of the student population, Aalto has one of the largest international communities in Finland and is the 47th most international university in the world (The Times HE rankings 2023.) We spoke with Toni Kaila, Specialist for International Affairs, to understand how the university is improving the student experience year-on-year. 

Understanding student perceptions across all segments 

For Aalto University, it is important to capture and understand the student voice - gaining an objective understanding of international students’ opinions, perceptions and needs is as part of the university’s quality systems that help ensure a high-quality experience for all their students. 

A critical tool in understanding the international student population at Aalto is Tribal i-graduate’s International Student Barometer (ISB), a student survey tool that evaluates and benchmarks student satisfaction, perceptions and motivations across the full student experience. Universities of course run multiple student surveys, but being able to isolate the data specifically for international students has many benefits, as Toni explains. 

“We've consistently seen across our student services that international students experience university differently – they have different issues and place a different emphasis on different aspects of the university experience, so it’s very important to tease that information out, to hear their voice separately. You don’t get that from many other surveys; the ISB is the exception.” 

This commitment to capturing, and most importantly, responding, to the student voice is probably best illustrated by Aalto University’s latest ISB results – at 93%, the university is number one in the world for ‘overall satisfaction’, significantly ahead of the European benchmark of 88%, and the global benchmark of 86%. Furthermore, students at Aalto University are far more likely to recommend the institution to others, achieving a recommendation score of 89%, compared to European and global benchmarks of 79% and 77%, respectively. The ISB indicates there is much Aalto University is doing exceptionally well. 

The granular detail the ISB brings to the university is also of great interest to Toni. As a fusion university Aalto has three different fields of study, and six different schools with students from all nationalities and demographics. Being able to understand each of those particular segments of students means the university can surface any issues and respond accordingly. 

Bringing context to student experience measures 

Having a measure of the student experience is one thing, of course, but giving it meaningful context is far more beneficial. In this respect, the ISB is special, as it compares each participating university’s student responses against benchmarks at a national and global level, as well as against peer group benchmarks where requested.  

“I can't emphasise how important that is - the benchmark data really puts it into perspective, and you don't really get that from anywhere else. It’s one of the main reasons we participate in the ISB.” 

This perspective has been helpful in assessing progress of initiatives, such as Aalto University’s investment in its student employability programme where they have made impressive improvements, as indicated by their ISB results, but Toni acknowledges the data in the ISB also reveals there is further work to be done to meet the levels of other peer universities. This quantitative data is also supported by qualitative data in the form of students’ open comments, a feature of the survey that Toni’s team pays close attention to, as it brings a sharper context to some of the results. 

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Improving employability 

Year-on-year, the ISB shows us that the number one priority for students considering university is the impact on their future career. Finland’s shared experience with other countries - aging population together with a national focus on attracting international talent - means this particular fact is of even greater relevance. Changes to National policy are certainly contributing, but universities like Aalto are very much playing their part. From their 2017 ISB results they could see there was important work to be done in the area of employability, to raise the level in general, but to also compete more effectively with their national counterparts. The subsequent initiatives they have developed have paid dividend - one aspect the survey measures is how prepared students feel for their career goals and here Aalto University students have a satisfaction rating of 86% compared with a European benchmark of 75%, and a global benchmark of 71%.  

Drilling down into some of the detail it is clear to see the university’s commitment to careers advice has been carefully developed and managed. Indeed, every single aspect of careers support satisfaction now exceeds the Finnish benchmark - Careers Fairs and networking opportunities, information, advice and support, training, placement, and employment opportunities. The university’s Careers Design Lab plays a key part here with student satisfaction around support exceeding Finnish and European benchmarks. Most interesting perhaps though, is the fact that of all the support functions in the university, this is the one with the second highest correlation with students’ propensity to recommend Aalto University to others. 

Highlighting areas for improvement 

Another element of the ISB that Toni finds particularly useful is how it attributes ‘derived importance’ to the aspects of the student experience. In this way the university is able to prioritise those areas identified for improvement, by combining the satisfaction ratings with the level of importance students place on any particular aspect.  

“It’s a fantastic feature, something my colleagues and I really appreciate. It brings objectivity to conversations with our schools, departments and academics; and it helps us understand how best to allocate resources to develop certain aspects of the university. You can rarely get that information from other surveys being run, so again, the ISB is quite unique in that respect.” 

University-wide engagement 

As with nearly all participating universities, Aalto University shares the ISB results across the institution with the help of Tribal i-graduate’s Regional Director who gives further insight into the data. Naturally, senior leaders have a keen interest in the analysis too, and Toni explained how after the previous ISB survey the Vice President was particularly interested in how the university’s support and facilities were being received, given the levels of resources that had been invested in developing the campus environment. The prognosis wasn’t overly favourable, but the university has responded to the ISB analysis more than adequately, often by making relatively small changes to how services are delivered. Those changes have worked and the latest ISB results show students are really happy with the campus and its support services. 

Understanding the student experience across the full breadth of student populations is imperative if universities are to ensure year-on-year improvements to the quality of the educational experience. This is especially true of those universities with diverse student populations, and those where international numbers are in a growth phase, so they can evaluate and respond to the different needs of all student segments. For Aalto University, the benefits are all too clear, as illustrated by their exceptional ISB results. And through their granular understanding of the detail beneath some of those headline-achievements, combined with the ability to prioritise where to focus their efforts over the coming years, it is a fair assumption Aalto University will only consolidate their position as a world-class university. 

The ISB helps institutions make informed decisions to enhance the international student experience and drive successful recruitment and marketing strategies.

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