Bridging the trust gap – from engaged learners to lifelong relationships

Razan Roberts believes that true digital transformation makes it feasible for universities to demonstrate care for students and staff.

Razan Roberts is Senior Director, Strategic Engagement and Communications at

The game has changed for higher education – and not only because of Covid-19.

Ask anyone working in a university right now and they will tell you that though the pandemic has pushed their institution to achieve things in a year that they’d previously thought would take ten.

But the challenges of remote work and study have also put additional pressure on pre-existing problems with higher education: a lack of equity in the student experience; growing student expectations of holistic support without the resource to deliver it; and balancing the demands of business innovation and efficiency with the sustainability of the scholarly community and engagement of university staff.

Don’t take trust for granted

Our recent global higher education research snapshot gathered data from 2,200 higher education staff and students from ten countries between August-September 2020, exploring the university experience during the Covid-19 pandemic.

What we found was an unusual degree of consistency in the experience, caused by the pressures of the pandemic. Globally, students’ top concerns were not academic engagement, but wellbeing and finance. 73 per cent of students said maintaining their wellbeing was a challenge and 72 per cent said they had financial concerns.

When we feel unsafe we look to institutions to offer reassurance and support. But 41 per cent of staff surveyed agreed there is a trust gap between leadership and instructors at their university, and 40 per cent of students agreed there is a trust gap between leadership and students at their university.

If universities are to thrive in the wake of Covid-19 – and we know that most aspire to learn the lessons of the pandemic and “build back better” – understanding and addressing this trust gap must be a priority.

Customers and care

In parts of the UK, the increase in undergraduate fees in 2012 was part of the heralding of a new consumer age for higher education, in which universities would become more responsive to student expectations.

This has indeed been the case, but it has not been an easy ride. Students continue to report value for money concerns, media are newly concerned with the plight of the student “consumer”, and staff can be uneasy about the reductive implications of a transactional customer relationship on pedagogy.

The problem, I would argue, is too frequently attributed to the framing paradigm of “students as customers” which, in public debate, is infused with the perspective of my generation, not that of Generation Z.

There is a generational divide between those for whom the idea of a commercial transaction is infused with ideas of alienation, and those who came of age in time when being a customer means forging a deeper relationship, one in which you feel “seen” on a personal level.

The difference, of course, is technology. Today’s students are accustomed to operating in a world in which technology gets to know us as customers – our preferences, our habits – and can make recommendations accordingly. In this world, being a customer is about demonstrating care, and building trust and loyalty through anticipating needs and making the experience of interacting smooth and seamless.

The alternative is that students experience their interactions with their institutions as less human, and more “computer says no”. Think of the frustration of a student who, in trying to deal with an administrative issue with their institution, has to share their personal information and explain their situation multiple times to different departments.

With the appropriate permissions and safeguards in place to protect individuals’ privacy, the power of personal data to allow students to be known and feel a sense of connection to their university is only beginning to be unleashed. The same is true for university staff, who can get equally frustrated with one-size-fits-all policies and a lack of sensitivity to personal circumstances.

True digital transformation

One of the greatest areas of opportunity for institutions to improve their students’ experience lies in the digital domain. Students expect a connected experience, and are more likely to feel a sense of belonging to their institution if their interactions are smooth and informed by their personal circumstances.

Technology cannot provide empathy, or memorable conversations. It cannot ease our pain. But by giving insight into where individual students are coming from and their behaviours, it can make those necessary human interactions more empathetic, and more memorable. It can free up time and mental energy to create space for more human interaction. And it can help provide students with the tailored support and services they need to flourish.

For institutions to bridge the trust gap and create a sense of belonging, they need to provide frequent, personalised communication across multiple channels, at the right time and using students’ preferred channels, to deliver a more individualised and supportive experience. This means having a comprehensive view of their students through data and a technology platform to deliver that experience and provide a more customised approach.

Many universities have upgraded systems from analogue to digital, and have used digital technology to change how work gets done. But the larger goal is to fundamentally change how students and universities engage and interact – and this results in a genuine digital transformation, which in turn will bridge the trust gap.

This article is published in association with You can view the report of the Global Higher Education Research Snapshot here and the data from the research in the Tableau dashboard here.

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