Key takeaways

  • Customer experience matters when it comes to acquiring and retaining consumers and building a community of advocates. This applies to the student experience too.
  • Students expect experiences that are personal, convenient, quick and consistent.
  • Universities that embrace good customer experience will have a competitive edge – necessary in today’s world of increased education options.

Remember the moment when you first start something new, whether a new job, joining a local club, or beginning life at university. Transitions in life can be both exciting and nerve-wracking, but these are the moments that matter: the moments that engage you (if done well), or disengage you (if done poorly).

When it comes to higher education, experience matters. Gone are the days when students expected to rush to a physical notice board to secure their tutorial time or fill out forms in triplicate to ensure their place in a subject. A dissatisfied student is just as potentially damaging as an irate customer, and a happy one will have a positive impact on the bottom line.

Optimising the student experience is not simply a nice thing to do, it’s an imperative that must be fulfilled for the sake of education as a business and for individual student outcomes.

The importance
of user experience

In a time when customers have access to quality products and services at competitive prices, customer experience has become a crucial differentiator. Good customer experience leads to more customers paying a premium for more services, being more loyal as well as being more disposed to sharing their positive brand experiences with others.

To be good, that experience needs to be quick, convenient and consistent. Digital needs to underpin it – seamlessly and without error – and the entire process must be helpful, knowledgeable and human. Unfortunately, these are characteristics that are not always associated with higher education.

For a long time, that hasn’t mattered a huge amount to the education sector, steeped as it has been in entrance criteria, historical authenticity and post-degree employability. When having a degree meant the difference between a career or a struggle, universities could afford to sit on their laurels when it came to the wrapping their degrees came in. But education is being disrupted.

Alternative study options such as online learning and industry placements are becoming more attractive to students in a more competitive employment landscape. The irony of course is that with automation on the rise, the need for individuals to constantly reskill to remain relevant will become the new reality. Employees will need to think of themselves as lifelong students, in whatever form that learning may take.

This means higher education providers need to be relevant for more than the three years a bachelor’s degree takes in order to compete with themselves and with alternative education options. For universities, a degree is no longer the only product that they are selling, as that model is increasingly replaced by a learning partnership. Naturally, an initial university experience will be critical to continued loyalty and reputation. Any other option will lead only to continuous churn and reputational damage.

In these circumstances a competitive edge is more and more important – and that edge will be experience.

Education and
customer service

Students must be thought of as customers to keep up with a world where everyone, of every age, expects the same level of customer service across all their providers, no matter the industry. And customers today are more sophisticated, and demanding, than they ever have been before.

This is even more true for younger generations – who are of course, those entering the higher education system. As our recent Consumer Intelligent Series report on customer experience explains, “What matters most to all generations surveyed holds true for Gen Z, too. But what passes for speed and knowledge to Gen Z might be different. Instant is expected. Convenience—seamless transition from tablet to smartphone to desktop to human—is a baseline expectation.”1 And yes, that means education providers should be feeling pressure.

Not only will a good experience be more likely to lead to the potential acquisition of students through brand reputation, it will have notifiable effects on retention of students. For instance, a recent report by The Grattan Institute in Australia found that 50,000 students dropped out of the degree they started last year, and with an attrition rate approaching 25 per cent. At those levels of defection it’s clear that higher education providers have a problem.2

“Student satisfaction with the university experience influences decisions to stay or go,” says the report, and “students who are not satisfied with their overall experience at university are more than three times as likely to consider leaving as those who are satisfied.”

Even ignoring those who leave as someone else’s problem (which we absolutely shouldn’t), student engagement has long been shown to have an affect on academic results – something that will undeniably contribute to the experience of those that stay.3

In short, experience matters at every stage and from every angle.


In our work in the Experience Centre at PwC Australia we have worked with a number of higher education providers in New Zealand and Australia to improve their digital experiences. This often means looking at one of the most important parts of the student engagement journey, the (outdated) onboarding process. As most students can attest, signing up for university (which should be a hopeful, exciting milestone in life) is often complex, time consuming and impersonal. At best, students can endure a slow or clumsy experience when enrolling, at worst they give up altogether.

A student’s first experience with higher education needs to be an amazing one, it has the potential to set up their entire view of an institution and affects how they engage with learning. In these projects, we have worked with universities to implement digital onboarding platforms that are mobile-friendly, intuitive, provide added value to students and personalise the experience. That is, they hit all the important points of good customer experience – speed, convenience and consistency.

To do this, we undertake in depth student testing throughout prototype and initial launch phases. By placing the student experience at the heart of onboarding, the process can be made to be quick and enjoyable, driving conversion by the simplification of steps and integrating support. Ideally, students can then access their personally-tailored information when they need it, through a platform designed to help them across their education journey. Furthermore these processes can often be reduced to single-digit minutes instead of clumsy half-hour situations that frustrate and deflate.

These projects show substantial increases in student satisfaction in the onboarding experience. That, of course, is just the start of the digital transformation.

It’s about
the opportunity

The benefits of optimising enrolment and orientation processes, particularly with regard to the retention of students, can represent a multi-million dollar opportunity, but even more so, the potential to build student loyalty, brand equity and resilience.

When 32 per cent of customers say they will stop doing business with a brand they love after just one bad experience, universities cannot afford to think that such ‘customer’ metrics don’t apply to them.

As a further bonus of providing an enjoyable digital experience, universities will also increase data touchpoints, and this can be used by education providers in multiple ways, from increasing academic performance, student retention and the prediction of future education needs. All of which will go towards the lifelong learning partnership.

As higher education providers look to the future of their industry it is increasingly important that they focus on transforming the end-to-end student experience, not just for first-year university students, but for life-long learners along their education journey.

Happier, more engaged and loyal students will be just one of the rewards.


This is a New Zealand version of a original article authored by Berry Driessen and David Paroissien, previously published on Digital Pulse.



Andrew Jamieson

Andrew Jamieson is PwC New Zealand’s digital strategy lead.

More About Andrew Jamieson