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How co-design can improve the experience of university students and benefit institutions

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Idea In Brief

Many benefits

Improving student experience is essential for universities to enhance their reputation, attract and retain students, and strengthen alumni engagement. Many students seek out institutions that can offer holistic academic, personal and career support.

Co-design works

Co-design, where decision-making power in design is shared between students and university staff, is a highly effective tool for driving student experience improvement, but only 5 per cent of surveyed universities currently employ co-design.

Start at any level

Institutions who have not yet used co-design should not avoid it because it is new or unfamiliar. There is a place for co-design across small and large projects. For those nervous about the process, confidence can be built through incremental steps.

In Nous’ extensive work with universities globally, we hear from vice chancellors, presidents, provosts and student service leaders that there is a growing focus on delivering an excellent student experience.

This reflects heightened expectations among students. As the current generation of undergraduate students increasingly struggle to adapt to university, their mental health (and retention in study) is suffering. Many students expect their institutions to respond to social issues at the individual and community level, and seek out institutions that can offer holistic academic, personal and career support, not just a prestigious academic experience.

The impact on institutions is significant. A focus on student experience helps universities to improve reputation, enhance attraction and retention of students, and strengthen alumni engagement.

So with improved student experience benefiting students and universities, institutions are rightly looking for better ways to understand and improve student experience.

In this article we outline approaches universities can take to co-design, drawing on insights from our recent student experience study.

Improving student experience can be challenging

Although there is a clear case for improving student experience, it can be challenging in practice.

First, good student experience requires dedicated effort, and many institutions lack strategies and leaders with accountability for the end-to-end student experience. Institutions that have historically prioritized student experience can now position this as part of their brand differentiation and value proposition to incoming students. Conversely, institutions that have been unable to dedicate focused resources to student experience find themselves behind the curve.

Additionally, improving student experience requires a student-centred mindset, rather than institution-centric, from academics and administrators alike. For institutions unfamiliar with this mindset, a student-centred mindset can create tension among staff as it challenges the traditional role and power dynamic between school and student.

Finally, we know that staff and academic capacity is more stretched than ever. So any student experience solution must not make excessive demands on university resources and, wherever possible, create additional capacity.

Co-design is a highly effective way to drive student experience

At Nous, we repeatedly see co-design rapidly deliver innovative and student-centric ideas to improve the student experience.

In our student experience study, 44 per cent of surveyed universities recognized co-design as one of the most effective methods of improving student experience. However, very few universities are using co-design – our study found only 5 per cent of surveyed universities employ co-design to improve student experience.

We think this is a missed opportunity. These universities are neglecting one of the most effective tools for improving student experience. This reluctance may come from limited resources or, as we see more often, an entrenched discomfort with providing decision-making power to students.

So, what is co-design, and what sets it apart from other forms of engagement with students? Co-design is a process where decision-making power in design is shared between students and university staff and faculty. Co-design involves students at every stage of change, not just the research or engagement stage.

This diagram shows the spectrum of student involvement in design:

Co-design must be underpinned by a genuine commitment to equality, empowerment, inclusion and evidence-based practice. Work underpinned by these principles invites students to bring the expertise of their own experience, while drawing on an evidence base of student-centred research to focus solutions on outcomes for many students, not just those in the room. This ensures decision-making power is shared by students and the institution.

Good co-design is iterative. The results of the design process should be communicated to students, so they can provide immediate and timely feedback. This feedback can then feed into the next round of design. Good co-design is an ongoing process, not a single point in time.

Universities have options to start using co-design for student experience

In practice, co-design can be used at any level. It can be used for major strategic work, such as co-designing the university’s student value proposition. It can also be used for small but critical changes to student-facing services, for example, when redesigning the experience of getting a transcript.

If co-design is new to your university, a major project may be too much to undertake immediately. Embedding a student-centred culture in any university takes time. Consider beginning with small, discrete opportunities to prove the value of the process to staff and faculty.

For example, in 2021 Britain’s Newcastle University recognized that challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic required new problem-solving techniques. But bringing future-focused transformation to a university campus after an exhausting period of global uncertainty required a bold but thoughtful approach. Nous partnered with Newcastle University to deliver three two-week sprints to pilot new ideas. The project quickly demonstrated how an iterative approach, focused on small cross-functional project teams collaborating with staff and students, can rapidly co-design and deliver solutions to improve the international student experience.

Similarly, the University of Alberta in Canada delivered a suite of small projects in student services, such as redesigning mental health services, to drive collaboration and idea generation among student-facing units. These projects grew institutional confidence in an iterative design approach, even without large-scale co-design work. The university then launched a project that engaged more than 7000 students through research and co-design to understand the unique experience of University of Alberta students and co-design a Student Experience Action Plan. The project was well received by staff and faculty alike.

Ultimately, any scale of co-design can make an impact in an institution at the practice embed the student-centred mindset and can prepare institutions to make genuine improvements to student experience.

Universities should embrace co-design to drive student experience

Institutions who have not yet used co-design should not avoid it because it is new or unfamiliar. There is a place for co-design across small and large projects. For those nervous about the process, capability and confidence can be built through incremental steps.

Universities know co-design works for improving student experience, but few have genuinely embraced co-design. Be one of those few, and the rewards will follow.

Get in touch to explore how we can help your institution use co-design to improve student experience.

Connect with Tess Lawley and Michael Tremblay on LinkedIn.

Prepared with input from Jessica Weereratne and Sarah Bell.