Insight and Strategic Ideas for Higher Education

Our mission is to help universities and colleges develop and deliver a consistent and coherent student experience that both defines the university brand and differentiates it

Students as core stakeholders

Stewart Redpath and Rosie Gilmour July 2014

Despite concerted efforts by universities to improve the student experience, there is a pressing need to redefine the relationship between students and universities. 

The implementation of more insightful research techniques and a deeper engagement with student needs on the part of the universities are key to raising the level of standards and services for students. 

Such an approach could form the basis for creating genuine competitive advantage in the new world of Higher Education.


A Problematic Context

Universities are facing unprecedented challenges. Despite the many areas of excellence they can be proud of, university institutions are facing global competition in a context where the UK invests less in HE than the OECD average and significantly less than its major competitors old (e.g. US) and new (e.g. China, Singapore).1 Moreover, with the current level of fees in English universities, educational institutions across Europe and further afield are recognising the potential to attract UK and other students with the promise of quality degrees at lower prices. Indeed, as a result of  the trebling of fees, a degree from an English university is now the most expensive by far in the world.1 Students embark on their Higher Education journey in the knowledge that they are accumulating significant debt. 

While the fees increase has led to a drop in applications from some student groups, notably part-time and  mature students,it has also led to a change in student attitudes with many now more vocal in their demands for more attention and better service. A recent Radio 4 documentary highlighted the change in student attitudes as the gap between perceived value for money and actual experience widens, with David Palfreyman, Bursar, New College Oxford summarising the issue thus:

“These days, it’s effectively closer to a market operating and the student behaving more like a consumer and especially if they have paid now very serious sums of money by way of fees, let alone living costs and sacrifice of earnings while they are in higher education”3

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the number of student complaints has increased in the last 2 years and may well continue to do so.

The concept of the undergraduate student “ some sort of junior member in the medieval concept of the university and the academic community” (Palfreyman, File on 43) is clearly long gone, and few universities would countenance this view. However, the structures and mindsets that underpin this perspective are perhaps harder to shift than some in the HE sector might be prepared to admit.

Yet it is clear that the educational reforms are here to stay. English universities find themselves having to adjust to a context resembling market conditions where they need to be competitive.  In order to do so, they need to respond to the markets and to their ‘consumers’, their students.  As Bekhradnia notes, future, it should be the decisions of individual students – decisions about where to study and what to study – and the responses of universities to the wishes of students as expressed through such decisions – that should determine [the development of individual universities and, by extension, the higher education system as whole]’2

Bekhradnia thus places the students right at the centre of the development of universities. Since the introduction of and subsequent escalation in tuition fees, students are buying their education. It is a high involvement purchase in which they and perhaps their parents carefully weigh up the options available to them and choose the one which they think will give them the best outcomes (or ‘Return On Investment’). What the best outcomes might be will vary from one individual to another, but for most it will mean a good degree from an institution that they can be proud of and an all-round student experience from which they benefited.

A New Relationship

The student-university relationship will never be like a consumer-supplier relationship. It has to be and always will be a co-creative, active collaboration. However, there is now a new kind of relationship developing between the institution and the student in which students expect to be listened to and have their needs met - something which universities have to respond to more visibly and with greater urgency than in the past.

Leaving aside the factors of ‘reputation’ and the intrinsic appeal of the English language, the battleground is quality and specifically, the quality of the whole student experience. 

The fees increase has  precipitated a “consumer mindset” in many students. In a context where there is no price differentiation, they are seeking the best quality Higher Education they can access. Consequently, universities now need to take them seriously not as “customers” but as core stakeholders in the creation of the student experience.

Are universities effectively translating stakeholder needs into organisational action?

All stakeholders are critical in delivering a world-class student experience, and the engagement of academics, administrators and managers, as well as students, are equally important. Without full organisational engagement focused on student priorities, the outcomes will always be compromised. 

We are therefore suggesting that students are proactively mobilised as core stakeholders in helping to define the kind of student experience that will build an enduring reputation for their institution. Their active involvement will also be instrumental in creating coherence between the internal brand and the external brand, a key component of long term success.

This approach is an opportunity to re-orientate thinking within institutions and to challenge established operating principles which may not be focused on the core stakeholders. If this is not embraced, universities will not reap the benefits of their best efforts to enhance the student experience. 

Beyond the National Student Survey

So how can Liminal help universities meet these new challenges? The NSS provides an excellent benchmark for the universities and the government. However, like any large quantitative study it does not help universities drill deeper into the important issues, nor does it provide solutions. This is where experience from the commercial sector could be of real help. By blending research, proposition development and strategic brand planning, Liminal can help preempt problems prior to the NSS and offer solutions to those that have already emerged. 

With in-depth knowledge and experience of both the education and the commercial sectors, Liminal combines research techniques and an approach to internal engagement that inspires new ideas and helps develop new propositions in a way that includes all the stakeholders. 

Inevitably, the management challenge will come down to making choices. These choices need to be informed by clear priorities. Central to any successful business is the importance of listening to, understanding and responding to customer needs. We believe this basic concept needs to be implemented thoroughly with students, both current and prospective and also with staff.

The first step is to listen to them and envision the institution in a way which delivers an overall student experience that is on their agenda. It would be a source of inspiration and clarification and the beginnings of strategic re-invention. If the core stakeholder is at the centre of your thinking, priorities and choices come into clear focus thus offering coherence and consistency. We are at a turning-point where progressive and visionary Vice Chancellors, Principals, Faculty Heads and academics can embrace change and use that to enhance academic standards and the overall student experience.

‘It would be a source of inspiration and clarification and the beginnings of strategic re-invention. If the core stakeholder is at the centre of your thinking, priorities and choices come into clear focus thus offering coherence and consistency’

Such an approach will increase transparency and drive professional development. It will encourage management to focus on the factors that dedicated and engaged students value and will help identify the sources of genuine competitive advantage. 

How can Liminal help?

We are experienced in the Higher Education and commercial sectors and we understand the cultural differences between the two. Sensitive, external facilitation stimulates a level of honesty and transparency from respondents that is not always possible through internal research. All Liminal research is carried out by senior Liminal consultants (see below). We have the experience and knowledge to help Universities and Colleges understand their students better and guide them in making important management decisions for a sustainable and more prosperous future. 

Who are we?

Rosie Gilmour BA (Durham), MA (London), PGDip (UWE), CIM

  • 11 years’ experience as an academic researcher and a market researcher in UK Universities
  • Trained and experienced market researcher
  • Researcher and project manager in Unilever and research consultant in Lloyds TSB
  • Extensive experience of Intercultural Communication and of working with students, both national and international

Stewart Redpath BA (Cardiff), PGDip (UWE)

  • Highly qualified marketing professional and market researcher 
  • Member of the launch teams of Orange and Lloyds TSB
  • For the last 8 years has run own business, specialising in branding, market research and marketing consultancy 
  • Has wide-ranging experience of working for the UK University and FE sectors


We pride ourselves on working closely with clients, ensuring that we respond to their needs in a timely and cost-effective manner.


1  OECD 2013, Education at a Glance’  2010 data.

2   “‘Higher Education in the UK – Punching Above our Weight.’  Really?” Bahram Bekhradnia, Higher Education Policy Institute Annual Lecture 26 November/2013

3 BBC R4 ‘File on 4’, 3/06/14