UK Higher Education

The power of student reviews in a reputation economy

Remember worrying about the Millennium Bug? If so, you might also remember that in 2000 a new online disruptor revolutionised the travel sector: Trip Advisor was born, and hotel managers the world over began to sleep a little less comfortably in their duck down quilted beds.

Twenty years on from those first customer reviews about bad boarding houses, harnessing the power of customer opinion has become key to building business reputation. In the education sector, prospective students are deliberating life-changing, multi-year learning journeys and they want to turn to authentic, honest advice from people they can trust: their peers.

IDP Connect investigated this issue in research with almost 600 prospective students, which highlighted that they want to be able to trust the information they are presented with and value transparency. Almost half of those surveyed (46%) who categorised themselves as either in the early stages of research, going to university soon, going to university after a gap or a mature student, said that they were interested in student reviews or opinions.

Gen Z loves interaction and customisation: comments, likes, chats, polls and quizzes are staple features of 24/7 communications with friends, family, influencers and businesses. And while word-of-mouth recommendation has, of course, always been a powerful and persuasive driver of purchasing decisions, in our constantly connected world, organic user-generated content is more heavily and frequently relied upon for purchasing decisions than ever.

With few purchasing decisions holding the gravitas and sheer life potential of university enrolment. presenting prospective students with reviews from their peers to guide them is fantastically powerful for both student and university.

In a paper published in the Elsevier journal Decision Support Systems,  Influence of consumer reviews on online purchasing decisions in older and younger adults, the authors investigated student attitudes to reviews. They concluded students were strongly influenced by average consumer ratings and affect-rich reviews (those producing an emotional response) and that, for students, positive and negative reviews overrode the effect of average ratings.

In the UK, IDP Connect has been focussing on collecting reviews for many years now, with 150,000 constantly renewed reviews live on Whatuni. Not only do they power user research on the site, but they provide an unbiased, student-led alternative to traditional university rankings and form the basis of the UK’s only student voice- led award ceremony, the Whatuni Student Choice Awards (WUSCAs).

This year, the Whatuni review collection team visited 150 different institutions to collect over 41,000 student reviews across 13 categories, from courses and accommodation to local life and job prospects. In addition to the 13 student review categories, our panel of students also judge 2 submission-based categories, ensuring that every aspect of the WUSCAs is determined by student opinion.

This year we also collected video reviews, giving students the chance to not only read, but the see and hear their peer’s thoughts. It’s the biggest review collection outreach programme in the country and when the winners of the WUSCAs are announced online later this year (follow @Whatuni on Twitter for the latest announcements), they will be all the more meaningful for being awarded entirely according to student opinion.

“Reviews allow existing students to inform the next generation about the ‘real HE experience’,” says Jade Whittaker, IDP Connect Project Manager in charge of review collection. “Our team listens to students and provides a place for their opinions to be shared. A WUSCAs nomination is uniquely valuable because it is a stamp of approval from students who feel supported in pursuing their education, and most importantly, it means their voices are heard.”

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