Durham University is very much aware of the unique and distinctive student experience the institution is able to offer, and maintaining high standards for all their different groups of students is very important. So, capturing the student voice to understand perceptions of that student experience is seen as a critical undertaking. Here, Charlie Pybus, Director International, discusses the role of the International Student Barometer in evaluating how the experience resonates with international students, and how the comparison with other universities helps inform improvement strategy.
Evaluating and comparing the student experience
For over a decade Durham University has been using the International Student Barometer (ISB) to evaluate and compare their student experience – it forms a core part of how they evaluate the support provided for international students and is embedded in their annual processes. The survey itself tracks and compares the decision-making, expectations, perceptions and intentions of international students from application to graduation, and covering topics such as decision-making and influencers; arrival and orientation; the learning experience; living; support and wellbeing; recommendation, as well as bespoke topics when requested.
Findings are initially reported back to the university by their ISB Consultant and for Durham, as with many other universities, this stage tends to involve a significant number of stakeholders as many people across the university are keen to see the latest results and insights. Charlie then ensures those findings are disseminated through the university to a really wide group of stakeholders, faculties and functions - across education, student support, careers, admissions, international recruitment etc. In this way the subsequent action plan to address the recommendations identified through the ISB benefits from evidence-led input from all the key areas involved with the student journey.
“Within the ISB, you capture a huge amount of information about the student journey, starting at a very early point in terms of student decision-making, right the way through to thinking about careers and post-graduation.”
It’s a continual process, and insights cover all areas of the student experience, but a specific area Charlie is focusing a lens on is that of how the university can better integrate into the collegiate experience their international students, particularly postgraduate students and students from their International Study Centre. These students may be less aware of the benefits of the collegiate experience, so it is important to understand their experiences and perceptions in order to develop the most appropriate messages or interventions that will increase their engagement. In this way, those students can also take advantage of the full Durham University offering.
Informing admissions strategy
Another key area the ISB is being used to inform strategy is the admissions process. Charlie has drawn upon the ISB data to feed into a review process.
“The ISB has enabled us to benchmark ourselves against competitors, in terms of what our decision turnaround was and what expectations were; whether students were satisfied or dissatisfied through the admissions process. Focusing on our postgraduate students, we can't get that sort of information from other data sources. Obviously, on the undergraduate side, things like UCAS can help inform those conversations, but there really is a big gap in terms of PGT and us being able to benchmark - where are we relative to others, and are we meeting student expectations?”
In this respect their latest results would have made for good reading, with Durham University outperforming their Russell Group competitors in a number of key areas - Overall satisfaction (91% vs 87%); Value for Money (74% vs 73%); Net Promoter Score (18 vs 14); and notably their performance in the most important factor when deciding where to study – career impact. When asked, “How well has your experience prepared you for your career goals?” (Final year students only), 78% responded Very well or well, compared with 63% in the Russell Group comparison set.
(Latest ISB Survey: 92,629 international students and 75,518 domestic students responses collected from 107 universities in 15 countries between September and December 2021)
This ability to compare and benchmark is really the key thing that he’s looking for and trying to understand any variances.
“And it’s not just about what our students think. It highlights where other universities, perhaps, are doing things less well or better, and we can use that as a kind of starting point for further research.”
Durham University also has the added benefit of having a rich, longitudinal set of data aiding year-on-year comparison and highlighting any longer-term trends that might need addressing. Charlie uses this to help prioritize where they invest resource and energy - if they can see that a particular aspect has declined over a number of years, or the university has been below benchmark over a number of years, that's clearly an area where they need to put work in. Allied to that is the ability to analyse and understand areas that might merely be a one-off dip. The expectation of course is that the university would begin to see a turn-around in the next survey, but if this proves not to be the case, then it moves up the priority list.
Covid clearly impacted the student experience dramatically, and universities globally anticipated the drop in satisfaction levels that the ISB reported, but Charlie is pleased to see in the latest set of results that Durham University has more than bounced back this year.
The value of open comments
One area of the survey that has surfaced some very interesting results is that of academic support in a wellbeing sense. By analysing the anonymised open comments from the survey, it became very apparent there was a real sense that the academics cared for the students - that there was a compassionate approach from academic colleagues towards students.
Given the significant amounts of money families are investing in students’ overseas education, and the growing importance of student wellbeing in a rich and rewarding student experience, this insight is certainly not lost on Durham. “Being able to offer that reassurance that we do take that duty of care very seriously and students really feel it when they're with us was something that we all felt was a real positive from the survey.”
And it’s not simply a case of it being a source of pride or a potential addition to their marketing messages, explains Charlie, “It's not just our message externally but also our message internally. Academic staff haven’t had it easy, in terms of having to deliver online, bi-modal teaching, so being able to play back to them, ‘yes, this has been a lot of work, but it has been appreciated’ is also something that I think is a real positive that we'll take away from it.“
Durham University’s participation in the International Student Barometer is clearly enabling Charlie and the International Office to listen closely to their student populations, and their usage of the rich insight it affords is evidently paying dividends as Durham University’s students’ responses demonstrate. The distinctive student experience of which the university is so proud is on a strong trajectory, and the ability to inform decisions around how to maintain that competitive edge lends itself to ongoing success for Durham University and their international students.
“The ISB’s ability to benchmark globally and against the competitor set is so important. It does mean that it sort of stands alone in the marketplace. Many KPIs and league tables etc tend to focus on home students, so there’s real value in a tool that gives us an insight into the experiences of international students. For Durham and for many of our competitors, it's a big strategic priority, and we need to deliver a high-quality student experience in order to continue to attract those students.”
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