Designing the future of higher education

In the ever-evolving landscape of higher education, one thing remains constant: the paramount importance of the student experience. As we witness the emergence of a new cohort of learners – the refined, digitally-savvy, and discerning – the need for universities to co-design their offerings with this critical audience in mind has never been more pressing. 

Gone are the days when a mere catalogue of courses and a picturesque campus were sufficient to attract students. Today's emerging adult learners expect more – they demand a personalised, seamless experience and interaction with academics that offers advice on their personal career, study needs and preferences. This cohort, raised in the digital age, are accustomed to tailored experiences in every facet of their lives, from shopping to entertainment. Therefore, it's imperative for universities to adapt and co-design their offerings to meet these high expectations.  

I picked up a fantastic podcast last week from UIIN that I highly recommend about designing interviews with empathy, piloting course design and gamifying the experience to engage today’s learners. The innovation sprint was simple – build a course from a human-centred design perspective and remove old learning and assessment structures to help students engage with the topic and construct knowledge with peers. Simple in concept, but challenging to execute in an increasingly crowded internal environment with ‘product owners’, ‘market testing’ academic boards and professional industry bodies co-accrediting courses.  

While courses may be higher on the complexity matrix, personalisation of student experience remains critical. Universities must harness data and technology to create tailored experiences that resonate with each student. From personalised course recommendations based on academic interests to intuitive online platforms that streamline administrative tasks, every interaction should be designed with the individual student in mind.  

I’ve dabbled with apps and portals for students. They generally offer a page of hyperlinks, but this is not personalisation. What we need to strive for in higher education is an ecosystem that builds an experience layer for students based on a rich foundation of data, technologies and processes across the university. Co-designed by students and built around principles of inclusion, this personalised ecosystem will provide a point of differentiation for the sector as students opt for experience rather than perceived value or university reputation or ranking.  

In 2024, we face a new campus reality, where students determine whether to travel to campus or catch the lecture online, and the student experience goes beyond the courses and student services to campus life. How do we best mix the flexibility of learning with the necessity of learning and socialising with peers? How might we improve a sense of belonging that fosters engagement and connection, arguably the essence of the university experience?  

Interestingly, I came across an orientation video at UQ comparing what new students of the 1960s wanted with the 2024 cohort. Their words differ, but at the core of the answers are ‘peer interaction’ – diverse, global and social perspectives to enrich their studies. Students are conscious of the investment (time, cost and opportunity cost) and want every minute to count as they exchange this experience for engagement with a future vision of leaders grappling with our current challenges and problems.

We know that this typically means providing opportunities for students to interact with peers and faculty online and offline. It means designing virtual and physical spaces that inspire creativity and collaboration. It means offering a range of extracurricular activities and support services that cater to today's students' diverse interests and needs. 

While universities remain easy to navigate for the people who work in them, we still find many future students confused and uncertain about courses, the cost, financing and the experience after they accept their offer to study. While we’ve improved the consistency and transparency of admissions through HESP, the ease of interaction and information digest is paramount. Navigating the complexities of university life, from enrolling in courses to accessing support services, should be intuitive and effortless. Just as emerging adult learners expect seamless experiences in the digital realm, they expect the same from their interactions with the university. I’m curious to understand Adelaide University’s opportunity to build an experience at the first university – working from a blank canvas and co-designing an inclusive solution for a more complex and diverse student cohort. 

Universities recognise the evolving needs and expectations of today's emerging adult learners. However, building this experience is a complex and costly exercise involving process change, cultural shifts and investment in the future student. The first step in the journey is embracing co-design principles and refining our offerings to deliver personalised, user-centric experiences to build an environment that will attract and retain students, enrich their academic journey and enhance their overall university experience.