What can design offer to universities at a time of change?

Written by: Thomas Kohut


Before I joined Uscreates, I had been spending a few years working around the higher education (HE) sector and its policymakers, monitoring ‘disruptive trends’, and helping people think about how universities might need to change in the new policy and political environment. Mostly, I was thinking about the sector’s ‘users’ – students, researchers, academics, managers and administrators.

The UK universities sector is in the middle of the most significant piece of public sector structural redesign, next to the NHS, something which is having a profound effect on its users and their relationship and attitudes to their education, research, or job as a researcher or administrator. This is creating a great deal of strain within the sector, and the tools and methods of service design may have something to offer to smooth the transition, and help university staff reorient what they do, whilst keeping their users at the heart of the mission.

All the politics surrounding the decision to raise fees in 2011 masked the start of something significant in the universities sector. A culture change is taking place, where words like customer, experience, insight, outcomes, quality and efficiency are becoming commonplace. These are concepts at the heart of service design, and what Uscreates offers to its clients, but they aren’t always received comfortably within universities themselves.

The ‘user’ with all the power, we’re told, is the student. I remember running a focus group a couple of years ago where students told us that although they didn’t ever see this much talked-of ‘£9,000 a year fees’ (they didn’t ever feel it in their hands or even in their bank accounts) they were aware that some kind of significant financial transaction had taken place. And most importantly, that somewhere down the line, they would feel the effects of this transaction when the student loan company ate into their pay packet.

As a result, the post-2011 student is new kind of user, and increasingly demanding of their institution, questioning what going to university itself is even for. Universities need tools to understand this. It would be a mistake to characterise students crudely as ‘consumers in a marketplace’ simply demanding ‘return on investment’, the real picture must be more complex. To cater successfully for students diverse needs and expectations across an increasingly diverse and now competitive sector, presents universities with a significant challenge, and that’s where service design can help.

Last month, the universities sector braced itself for the publication of a White Paper, which we now know will speed-up and intensifying these trends. The ‘traditional’ sector will face increasing competition from agile, innovative new private providers and colleges, and universities need to be able to react. Not least because the Government is watching – a ‘teaching excellence framework’ will, for the first time, judge universities (and rank them) based on student satisfaction, retention rates, and employability outcomes.

Taking the first two measures, universities with more sophisticated insights into their students’ needs and expectations, and co-designing the services they offer with students themselves, will score higher on student satisfaction, and keep students engaged and happy. Universities need to be brave about the methods they use here so they can understand what students actually value about their courses and how they prioritise different aspects of the university ‘experience’. Uscreates has longstanding expertise in carrying out people-centred user research, alongside behavioural insight techniques and data analysis, which we have applied across the public and private sector, including with education. Our kind of expertise is extremely valuable to universities right now, as senior staff, from Vice Chancellors downwards, start looking for ways to satisfy the complex needs of the demanding post-White Paper student.

Employability is a controversial concept, and one which universities are placing at the centre of their brand more and more. Universities still need help understanding how they position themselves in the quasi-market HE environment, and how they construct a narrative about what their students will bring to the labour market once they graduate. Nobody wants to undermine the intrinsic value of going to university and having the space to develop and grow, but we think universities could be better at understanding and articulating the economic and employment-related ‘benefits’ of going to university alongside these intrinsic values. At Uscreates, we have experts in helping clients develop narratives and communicate them effectively both internally and to the market.



Through our work in healthcare, Uscreates has helped many complex, politicised and often heavily-bureaucratic public institutions go through change, and reorient their services towards the people who use them. As the higher education bill comes before Parliament in the next month, I’m excited that we might find ourselves called upon to help more universities too.
To find out more about what Uscreates can do to help universities at this time of change, please contact thomas.kohut@uscreates.com



Uscreates is an award-winning, 10-year-strong strategic design consultancy working to improve health, care and wellbeing through embedding a design approach across organisations. We design communications, services, systems, processes and strategies for a range of public, private and third sector clients including private hospitals and clinics, NHS England, the Department of Health, CCGs, Nesta, the Health Foundation, World Bank and PwC.

Thomas is a Consultant at Uscreates, with experience in applying creativity and a human-centred approach to policy research, campaigning, and stakeholder engagement in and for the public and private sectors, charities, Parliament, Central Government, universities and academia. He has led teams and projects working with and for the design and creative industries; on innovation, competitiveness and creativity in UK manufacturing; on the relationship between culture and community energy schemes; and most recently specialising in education and skills, with a focus on the tertiary education system, teaching quality, research, student finance, regulation, improvement and intervention, and pathways into work.