Putting the Student Experience First: Student-Centricity and ExcellenceJanice Deakin | Provost and Vice President of Academics, Western University
Across North America, the expectations and characteristics of students are changing. While many colleges and universities have long operated on an institution-centric model where the institution dictated the experience to students, today’s learners want more control over their engagement with the institution. In this interview, Janice Deakin discusses why student centricity is critical for today’s institutions, sharing some of the work she and her colleagues at Western are doing, and reflects on what it means for a college or university to be truly student-centric.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it so important for universities today to be student-centric?
Janice Deakin (JD): Universities that aspire to compete globally understand the imperative of attracting and retaining top students because student quality correlates with other important measures that reflect on their institution’s reputation. You simply can’t hope to attract the best students without offering them the high-quality educational experience they demand, so adopting a student-centric attitude is critical.
For the past two decades, Western has focused a lot of attention on maintaining high enrollment standards, and the outcomes speak for themselves. Our first-year class now has the highest average entering grade among Ontario’s 20 universities, and our retention and graduation rates rank among Canada’s highest. Over the last six years, we’ve also tripled the number of international undergraduate students who choose Western, and we’ve increased the proportion of graduate students who make up our total enrollment.
We’ve achieved these results in large part by promoting our brand as Canada’s best student experience at a research-intensive university. A complex mix of elements go into creating that experience that involves literally every member of the campus community—from the physical plant, food service, residence and administrative support staff, to the teachers and researchers who translate their passion for knowledge and discovery on to their students. While I can’t say “student centricity” is part of our vernacular at Western, I can say that “best student experience” is a mantra that permeates our campus culture.
However, it’s important to note that Western is equally committed to achieving excellence in research. We see research as being absolutely integral to the academic enterprise and an essential component of our mission and vision as a global university. We do not view teaching and research as mutually exclusive; rather, we believe one activity informs the other and that both contribute in important ways to the world-class education we strive to provide for our students.
Evo: To your mind, what are the central factors that define student centricity?
JD: At a basic level, student-centricity is simply a mindset that puts students at the heart of everything you do. At Western, the factors that narrow our focus on the student experience are outlined in our strategic plan.
As I mentioned previously, it begins with a strong commitment to recruiting the best students. Smart students thrive when they’re surrounded by other smart students, along with smart faculty, of course. By focusing on student quality, you create a virtuous circle that cultivates a dynamic learning environment in which the students themselves are active in challenging and supporting one another in their academic and extra-curricular pursuits.
We also offer a wide range of programs designed to appeal to a diversity of interests, including an increasing number of interdisciplinary and innovative professional master’s programs. We’re working to articulate learning outcomes so students get a better idea of the transferable knowledge, competencies and skills they may expect to gain and apply to their careers post-graduation. We promote and support experiential, international and entrepreneurial learning opportunities because we know students benefit from hands-on experience that complements their classroom learning. This includes providing more opportunities for undergraduates to participate in the research enterprise. And we promote excellence and innovation in pedagogy, including support for faculty and staff who develop alternative means of program delivery that involve online, hybrid and blended teaching methods.
Evo: How does student centricity affect decision making for prospective students—both traditional and non-traditional—when it comes to choosing an institution, and how does Western deliver on these factors to offer a student-centric experience?
JD: Multiple factors influence students’ decisions in choosing a university, but most will tell you that first and foremost is offering them a reputable program in a discipline of their choosing. As a comprehensive medical-doctoral university that includes world-renowned professional schools among its 11 faculties, Western offers more than 400 different specializations, majors and minors at the undergraduate level. We also guarantee students admission to the first-year courses they want.
A beautiful campus with high-quality facilities is also key. In a national media survey gauging student satisfaction, Western’s residences have placed number one for 11 consecutive years, which has bolstered our reputation as one of Canada’s best residential campuses. We know that what happens in residence is a huge part of the student learning experience and so we’ve guaranteed a room in residence for every first-year student we admit and we’ve invested a lot into the people and facilities that make that such a memorable part of our students’ time on campus.
Add to residence life the opportunity to participate in extra-curricular activities, including student government, recreational and intramural sport, varsity athletics, and literally hundreds of special interest clubs. Students look for unlimited possibilities for augmenting their education beyond the classroom.
Western also recognizes that different kinds of students may require different kinds of support. To this end, we provide a full range of student development, academic counselling and administrative support services that contribute to student success across the student body—from domestic to international students, and from first-year and upper-year undergraduates to graduate students and postdoctoral scholars. We also facilitate collaboration among various service providers with a view to ensuring that all students are directed toward the best service available to meet their specific needs.
Writ large, student centricity is ultimately about understanding the evolving landscape of students’ educational needs and expectations, and then always looking to develop and provide cutting-edge, dynamic learning opportunities both inside and outside the classroom. The end goal is preparing global citizens who have the knowledge, skills and confidence to succeed in their chosen fields of endeavor.
Author Perspective: Administrator