University support services aim to help students solve all sorts of personal problems quickly, so they can return to focusing on what they came to the university to do: learn. Accessing and using these services should be simple, free from barriers or confusion. But every student’s needs and situations are different, and how all of this works together is part of providing a positive student experience.

The University of York started a programme of change and invited us to review their frontline services to help improve the student experience. Together, we identified a user-centred framework that focuses on the need for inclusive redesign, built around the needs of student individuality.

Segmenting students

The university’s equality, diversity and inclusion strategy supports staff to be flexible and adaptive to the needs of their diverse university community while adopting an inclusive campus approach.

During interviews, observations and workshops, we found that students are divided into segments such as ‘postgraduates’, ‘international students’, ‘parents’ and ‘remote students’. We attempted to align with this framework while analysing student interviews but came across some challenges.

An individual student can belong to multiple segmentations, as a student can be postgraduate, international and a parent. Different segmentations can also have similar challenges. A parent, someone on a placement and a student in a wheelchair can all find physically accessing the services on campus too time-consuming in their schedules.

We realised the university did not need a framework that focuses on who the students are, but on how their needs impact their access to support. We needed a new way to differentiate individuals to understand:

  • how aware a student is of the support available
  • how confident a student is in the process
  • how a student is able to access and use the support available

Understanding individual user needs

We interviewed many students who had a good awareness of the types of support they could receive and were able to confidently access and use these services. But not all students had such a smooth experience. For some, accessing support becomes an additional challenge to the personal challenge they’re trying to solve.

With small adjustments, the university could make many existing services more efficient, supporting students to self-serve and allowing staff to focus on those students with more complex needs.

Constrained students

We found that some students need to overcome obstacles when trying to access services.

Student access and use constraints diagram

Some obstacles might include lectures and independent studying that require considerable amounts of time alongside other commitments like work placements or parenting. Or, individuals can struggle with digital product usability. It can be frustrating for students that find using digital products complicated, or have different cultural expectations, to learn in a technology-heavy environment.

Constraints like these can severely impact individuals with temporal and permanent physical disabilities. For them, these obstacles may be increasingly difficult.

An inclusive design approach can lead to solutions that facilitate the process for these cases, while allowing independent students to self-serve.

Hesitant students

There are many initiatives the university already undertakes to make sure students understand what support is available and the processes for access. If this is improved, it will help students that have low levels of awareness of these services grow confidence about how the university can help them.

Hesitant students diagram

For example, students can forget what they were told during orientation or be unaware that processes have changed. This is more likely to happen when students are not exposed to regular communications.

For many students, this is the first time they might have to deal with certain topics. They may struggle to understand jargon or come from countries where some topics (mental health, disabilities or sex) are stigmatised or discussed in different ways. Similarly for those with permanent or temporary cognitive disabilities may also struggle to understand and navigate the system. Some mental health conditions or temporary states (such as shock or distress) might affect their ability to understand information or just require more time and support from the service teams

Vulnerable students

Some students can be classed as both hesitant and constrained because they have multiple barriers.

These students might need additional levels of support, putting a strain on service staff. Refining and simplifying time-consuming, staff-intensive processes is a key way to free up time to support vulnerable students.

Vulnerable students diagram

The university is in a unique position to understand the life events and exceptional circumstances that can trigger a temporary state of vulnerability for some students. The student life cycle is knowable and predictable — both on an annual basis and for undergraduate and postgraduate students. This allows the university to pre-empt the student’s needs or be better prepared to assess when and how the level of duty of care changes.

Using the framework

Let’s use this framework to assess some of the stories similar to those heard during our student interviews.

Inclusive student support user-centred framework

Student G was harassed in their college and needs to switch accommodation.

This student is independent ‘enough’, as they’re aware of the support available and the process. But they still need prompts to improve their confidence to access support, as their level of shock may impact their ability to understand the support available.

How might the university increase the awareness and confidence of harassed students when accessing this support?

Student A lives on campus and needs help with their visa.

They can easily access the campus, but many concepts are new, there is a lot of jargon and English is not their first language.

How might the university improve their awareness and confidence when accessing support services?

Student J has a young child.

On top of their busy university schedule, they need to make sure they can take care of their child. They don’t have time to understand and access complex processes.

How might the university simplify processes and provide additional support or other access routes?

Student C was diagnosed with a severe illness.

They need an extension to their assignments and required mental health support. For a period of time they will not feel able to access services and they will have other priorities.

How might the university manage this state of vulnerability?

Managing vulnerability diagram

The framework is not a segmentation of these students in four different types. But a way to reflect on their individual needs and will help the university to make a mindful decision of what level of support they require.

This is a very different way for universities to think about their student population. It moves the frame of reference away from designing services for postgraduates, first years, international or remote students to be far more inclusive of student’s needs. With this new frame, universities have a significant opportunity to deliver a positive student experience throughout the student lifecycle.

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