Assessment of Student Satisfaction as a Tool in the Development of Marketing Strategy for Higher Education Institutions

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The Assessment of Student Satisfaction as a Tool in the Development of Marketing Strategy for Higher Education Institutions

Literature Review

Douglas et al. (2006) argue that the service delivery refers to the inseparable offering of many goods and services included in the university’s offer to the students and that is consisted of three elements. The first element is physical or facilitating goods which include the lectures, amphitheatres, classrooms, a café, restaurant and recreational amenities. In their survey, conducted at a number of universities over two years for the purpose of determining student’s reasons for selecting a particular university, Price et al. (2003) reported on the impact of facilities on undergraduate student choice of university. It was concluded that student’s perceptions of a university’s facilities are one of the main factors on the decision to enrol. The second element is the sensual service provided – the explicit service. It consists of knowledge levels of staff, faculty teaching ability and its consistency in quality, ease of making appointments with staff etc. The psychological service – the implicit service is the third element which includes the treatment of students by staff (friendliness and approachability), concern shown if the student has a problem, respect for his or her feelings and opinions, availability of staff and finally capability and competence of staff. This is followed by the ability to make students feel comfortable, to show the sense of competence, confidence and professionalism conveyed by the ambience in lectures. Through this, it is felt that the student’s best interest is being served and that rewards are consistent with the effort put into coursework/examinations (Douglas et al., 2006).

As previously mentioned, students’ satisfaction is what leads to their loyalty. Research conducted by Jones and Sasser Jr. (1995) found that where customers have choices, the link between satisfaction and loyalty is linear; as satisfaction rises, the loyalty rises as well. This simultaneously covers, among others, the possibility to study at a higher level in the same institution and the willingness to give recommendations for the higher education institution. Students can be considered as the main stakeholders of the higher education institutions and their satisfaction is an important element that has a major impact on the fate of these institutions in the long term. Satisfaction of the students can increase student enrolment and retention. Hence, enhancing student experience can influence the demand for higher education services and have a positive effect on dropout rates. Additionally, it can lead to an increment in intention to proceed to a higher level of studies in the same higher education institution. Latwan (2014) believes it is imperative for the education institution’s management to monitor and measure student satisfaction on a regular basis and incorporate innovative changes to bring out better services to their stakeholders.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, higher education institutions are becoming aware of the high competition in the industry. The effects of free market economy, which did not surpass this sector, put all education providers in one big basket, who have to compete with their rivals for the current and prospective students, regardless of their past success and reputation. They are confronting new and complex market placement problems. Such conditions aggravate the position of customers and their differentiation from one higher education institution to another, especially when they are all located in a narrow geographical area such is Bosnia and Herzegovina. Unfortunately, the local (and regional) market has become aggressive enough that, even in higher education institutions, marketing sells it all. This project advocates that a successful marketing strategy will eventually surpass the reputation of a higher education institution, and attract the students, shall the other higher education institutions, whose study programs and quality might be even better, get comfortable in their reputation and not invest in marketing strategies.

A product offered by the higher education institutions includes more than just its academic program. The academic and personal thread are somewhat the strongest components that become embedded in the product. Keillor et al. (1995) suggest that successful student recruitment should be viewed through four basic stages: attraction, evaluation, retention, and met expectations. What is more than obvious, at present, is that the combination of both personal and academic experiences represents the main source to attract and retain students. It is believed that the process of attracting new students involves a set of issues separate from retaining current students. Nevertheless, as in any other service sector, different target groups may evaluate different segments of the universities’ products (values emphasized by parents may not be of major importance for students).

In order to deliver high quality service to students, the management of the university should reinforce their concern about every aspect of the student’s interaction with all of their employees, particularly social service aspects. Services are delivered to people by people, and the truth, as well as little white lies, can make or break a university’s image (Banwet and Datta, 2003). All university employees need to adhere to the principles of delivering quality customer service, regardless of if they are closely working and communicating with the students (professors, registry office) or if they are employees involved in administration or management roles. Clearly, the personnel, in direct interaction with the students, is a significant factor in students’ experience and evaluation of education service quality. In the survey conducted by Latwal (2014), across MBA and PGDM institutes in New Delhi, the relationship between behaviour of staff and student satisfaction was investigated. The result indicated the existence of a strong, positive correlation between behaviour of staff and student satisfaction among students. It was presented that 31% of their satisfaction is determined by behaviour of staff.

However, environment in the sense of physical appearance, such as amphitheatres, classrooms etc. may also have an impact on the students’ experience significantly. The results of survey conducted by Latwal (2014) across MBA and PGDM institutes in New Delhi indicated that there is a strong and positive correlation between physical infrastructure and student satisfaction. In particular, the results showed that 38% of their satisfaction is determined by physical infrastructure.

Banwet and Datta (2003) asserted that satisfied customers are loyal. The quality of the core service will influence the overall service experience and perception. The core service component for higher education institutions is the lecture. One of the important aspects in the process of student retention is their perception of quality and satisfaction they get attending lectures and their intention to recommend the university based on the quality of lectures. In their study, Douglas et al. (2006) found that satisfaction is linked to teaching and learning factors as compared to the physical facilities. The research conducted by Tam (2002) measured the impact of higher education on academic, social and personal growth of students at a Hong Kong University. It found that students’ university experience changed students intellectually, socially and culturally.

According to the comparative analysis of Smajlović et al. (2015), a discussion arises that advertising and promotion of public and private higher education institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina are primarily used as a tool to recruit new students. This theory perfectly fits into the current situation – the best marketing and promotion strategies attract the most students. It is naturally important to acknowledge the components that an institution promotes (the university professors, the study programs, the accreditations, the quality assurance system, the mobility, etc.), nevertheless the project will move in the direction to accentuate, that no matter what the qualities are, if not well promoted, they will not fully serve their purpose – the academic and financial prosperity of the institution that possesses all the components.

Methodology

Huang et al. (2011) advocate that due the specific nature of education service, assessing student satisfaction with higher education institution is a great challenge for the universities. The complex notion of education service which is affecting student experience beyond the study program and lectures, makes student satisfaction difficult to measure by using a set of universal tools. One of the main issues is identifying the aspects of the university and the education service that are influencing the satisfaction.

Elliott and Shin (2002) share the idea that students’ opinions about all aspects of academic life are now sought by education institutions worldwide, generally in the form of a satisfaction feedback questionnaire. The way in which students evaluate their satisfaction is based on a cognitive process of comparing their prior expectations to the actual experiences from attending the particular university. Student satisfaction comes as a result when actual performance meets or exceeds the student’s prior expectations. Vice versa, student dissatisfaction comes as a result when prior expectations exceed actual performance. Measuring student satisfaction should take into consideration the importance of different dimensions of university experience to student. The reason behind this is the fact that different aspects of the university are not of equal importance to different students.

This project surveyed the undergraduate students from all five faculties of the private higher education institution University – Sarajevo School of Science and Technology (University SSST) in order to measure their satisfaction with the university experience thus far. These faculties are: Economics, Computer Science and Information Systems, Political Science and International Relations, Sarajevo Medical School, Sarajevo Film Academy. The approach to assessing student satisfaction proposed in this project also considered the importance of different aspects of the university experience thus far. The method used in this project was influenced by the observation of the multiple-item weighted gap score used in the research conducted by Elliott and Shin (2002). The method developed by Elliott and Shin (2002) utilizes multiple education attributes, students’ level of satisfaction with each attribute and the level of importance as perceived by students (Elliott and Shin, 2002). The importance of satisfaction with different aspects of the University SSST should enable the institution to set priorities. Elliott and Shin (2002) advocate these priorities would seemingly help determine where to allocate resources effectively and how to make efforts on the aspects that are considered as important by students.

As previously mentioned, there is a link between the quality of education service and the student satisfaction. When evaluating the quality of service at the university, different students have different criteria. According to Ford, Joseph and Joseph (1999), it could be argued that the importance/performance paradigm is the most appropriate tool for assessing the quality of education service. They advise that creating focus groups can ensure successfully conducted survey. Having participants of the focus groups discuss their perceived and expected quality dimensions helps ensuring that appropriate and relevant evaluation criteria has been identified and used. With this step, possible mistakes in terms of focusing on irrelevant service dimensions in the assessment of student satisfaction can be avoided. The aspects of university experience that the participants of focus groups stress as factors of their satisfaction should be used as the criteria for conducting the survey.

For the purpose of understanding the aspects of the thus far experience of students with the University SSST, focus groups were assembled. The aim of creating focus groups was to understand the factors that are influencing student satisfaction with the University. The focus group sessions, consisted of on average 5 students, were organized with undergraduate students across all five departments of the University. Grade Point Average (GPA) as well as year of studies deferred within the group of students from the particular department. The selected qualitative approach was implemented not for the purpose of creating statistical findings, but for the purpose of more in depth understanding of factors influencing their satisfaction and reasons behind it.

University SSST conducts surveys that are more of a student evaluations used in determining the success of a course and the effectiveness of the professor, rather than a survey on student satisfaction. As the University has not yet done any significant changes to the particular evaluation, the approach to assessing student satisfaction can be useful for the University management who are thinking about using the satisfaction score as a tool in developing the necessary marketing strategy.

The survey instrument used in this project was the studentsatisfaction questionnaire, influenced by observation of the Student Satisfaction Inventory, created by the USA Group Noel-Levitz group (ruffalonl.com, 2017). The student satisfaction questionnaire consisted of 28 items in total. The questionnaire was preceded by demographic questions that allowed the sample population to be segmented. These questions provided information regarding the department, the year of studies, the GPA, as well as the information about whether the University SSST was the first, the second or the third choice when entering the University. The items covering a range of university experiences were Likert-type statements that assessed the level of satisfaction on a seven-point scale ranging from 1 to 7, where 1 is not satisfied at all, 2 is somewhat dissatisfied, 3 is not very satisfied, 4 is neutral (neither satisfied or unsatisfied), 5 is somewhat satisfied, 6 is satisfied and 7 is very satisfied. Following the 24 questions in regards to the student satisfaction, the importance that students place on particular aspects of the university experience were measured utilizing a seven-point Likert scale, where 1 is not important at all, 2 is not very important, 3 is somewhat unimportant, 4 is neutral (neither important or unimportant), 5 is somewhat important, 6 is important and 7 is very important. The questionnaire helped in assessing the importance levels for different dimensions of the University’s offer which were subdivided into various categories including physical appearance and facilities, equipment, quality of the study programs, quality of faculty members and their teaching abilities, interaction and relationship with the faculty and staff, tuition fee and scholarships. At the end of the questionnaire, the students were asked to assess how has the University experience met their expectations thus far by providing responses on the scale from 1 – much worse than I expected to 6 – much better than I expected. They were also asked for the overall satisfaction with the experience at the University SSST and whether they would recommend the University to prospective students; for both questions again using the seven-point Likert scale. The intention of the student satisfaction questionnaire is not to indicate why the student is satisfied or dissatisfied, as it is to provide a diagnostic value for the strategic decisions.

When creating the questionnaire, the length of the survey as well as the complexity of the questions were taken into account, as the aim was to get as large and representative sample as possible. The undergraduate students of all faculties across the University SSST were contacted via student e-mail addresses and were asked to fill out the electronic version of the questionnaire (Appendix I). Participation in the survey was completely voluntary and anonymous.

Overview of Higher Education Sector in Bosnia and Herzegovina

The complex constitutional organization of Bosnia and Herzegovina and its political and administrative structure is affecting the education sector. For the purpose of better understanding the complexity of the higher education system, the following section will provide insight into the framework of higher education in the country.

Bosnia and Herzegovina consists of two entities: Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH) that is divided into 10 cantons, Republic of Srpska(RS) that is divided into 62 municipalities, and Brčko District of Bosnia and Herzegovina(BD) as a separate district. The country joined the Bologna Process in higher education sector in 2003 (fmon.gov.ba, 2017). Due to its constitutional system, the framework of higher education sector in Bosnia and Herzegovina represents a reflection of its overall political and administrative organization. The education sector is highly heterogeneous and has a structure with three levels of government. In a relatively small country, this heterogeneity demanded a major difference in the application of the Bologna Process. Hence, the higher education sector is decentralized, having the authority over the relevant issues divided between 14 responsible ministries: 2 Entity Ministries of Education, 10 cantonal Ministries of Education, Brčko District Department and Ministry of Civil Affairs of BiH at the state level; as they all bear full and undivided responsibility for education (fmon.gov.ba, 2017).

Cantonal Ministries of Education perform administrative and professional tasks related to the area of education and science in cantons. The Federal Ministry of Education and Science carries out tasks and activities that are encompassing coordination and implementation of the Bologna Process, as well as activities on improvement of education and its standard in the Federation entity. Furthermore, the Ministry of Civil Affairs of BiH (MoCA) is responsible for activities of entity bodies and for defining the strategy of education at the international level (ibid). The Ministry of Education and Culture of the RS, ten Ministries of Education in FBiH and the Department of Education of the BD have sole competencies in education (ibid).

In order to establish basic principles and standards of higher education that are in accordance with the principles of Bologna Declaration and Lisbon Recognition Convention, in 2007 BiH adopted and officially started the implementation of the Framework Law on Higher Education in Bosnia and Herzegovina (fmon.gov.ba, Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency, 2017). The Law on Higher Education presents the basis for authorities to align entity, district and cantonal laws on higher education, as well as the outline of actions for all institutions in BiH. It was harmonized in the Republic of Srpska, in the cantons of the Federation and Brčko District, making Bosnia and Herzegovina fully integrated into the Bologna system of education. It determines the organization of the higher education in BiH, from the responsibility of the authorities and individuals involved in the implementation of the Bologna process, defining international obligations of BiH, to the assurance of quality in the higher education (fmon.gov.ba, Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency, 2017).

Although it has made progress since it joined the Bologna process in 2003, in the absence of a political environment for the establishment of the Ministry of Education and Science at the state level, higher education in Bosnia and Herzegovina still faces a series of problems and its slow progress is caused, among others, by the constitutional organization.

The Structure of the Higher Education

The term “university” refers to a higher education institution that engages in both teaching and research, offering academic degrees of all three cycles and providing at least five different study programs from at least three scientific areas (fmon.gov.ba, 2017).

Higher education in Bosnia and Herzegovina is organized in three cycles, as full-time, part-time and distance learning, or alternatively, a combination of these models of study. The first cycle (undergraduate studies) leads to the degree of Bachelor, obtained after a minimum of three and a maximum of four years of full time study, having completed secondary education, prior to this. The second cycle lasts for one or two years and leads to the academic title of master or equivalent. The third cycle lasts for three years and leads to the academic title of doctor or equivalent, acquired following the completed graduate study.

Public and Private Higher Education

Higher education in Bosnia and Herzegovina is conducted in both public and private higher education institutions. There are many private educational institutions in BiH, which is especially the case for higher education institutions, where the number of private institutions compared to public institutions in higher education is quite large. Subsequent to this, there are currently 10 public universities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and as many as 38 private higher education institutions (registar.nub.ba, 2017). There are 15 universities in Federation of BiH and 12 universities in Republic of Srpska that have been accredited by the Agency for the Development of Higher Education and Quality Assurance (hea.gov.ba, 2017).

Public education in BiH is mostly financed by public budgets of entities and cantons. This means that BiH has thirteen separate budgets for education by thirteen institutions at state, entity and canton level: the two budgets of the entities, one of Brčko District and ten cantonal budgets. Financing of the higher education in the Federation of BiH is under the jurisdiction of cantons. The Federation allocates funds to cantons according to an agreed formula, but the formula for the allocation of cantonal revenues results in unequal financing of education institutions in cantons. This is because a canton government has the ability of allocating as many funds as it wants to higher education institutions (fmon.gov.ba, Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency, 2017). Allocated budget to higher education in BiH is not sufficient for the purchase of equipment, textbooks, library literature, participation in international exchanges or execution of the education reforms. The budgets of higher education institutions are mainly used to cover labour costs, whereas there is no control over the work of employees in the institutions (ibid).

Aside from being financed by the budget of education authorities, funds for education activities in public higher education institutions are provided from their own revenues, budget of the local government, donations and other sources. This means that institutions are financing themselves from collected tuition fees, with which students participate in co-financing of the total costs of their studies, at the particular public higher education institution. The tuition fee amounts are decided at the level of the government and for all study programs at higher education institutions for each academic year (ibid). Furthermore, public higher education institutions collect their revenues through projects, services of laboratory tests and certifications, seminars, training programs, publications, rent of office spaces and other.

Unlike public, private higher education institutions are not financed by the government and therefore, have their financial autonomy. However, a private higher education institution is responsible of meeting the legal requirement of acting as a non-for profit organization (fmon.gov.ba, 2017). Consequently, its profits must be oriented primarily to investments in improving the education service and research activities.

Quality Assurance in Higher Education Sector

By applying the Bologna process to the higher education system in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the process of ensuring and improving the quality of higher education institutions became increasingly important. Due to this, in 2008, the Agency for Development of Higher Education and Quality Assurance (HEA) was established as an independent public organization (hea.gov.ba, 2017). With the aim of improving international credibility, the Agency has been a member of the international networks for quality assurance in higher education, and among others, an associate member of the European Association for Quality Assurance (ibid).

There are two separate processes for education quality assurance in Bosnia and Herzegovina that are implemented: the process of licensing and the process of accreditation (fmon.gov.ba, Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency, 2017). Licensing is the process of assessing whether the particular institution is meeting all the requirements and standards for the initiation of its work and all activity performances encompassing the field of higher education (ibid). In other words, it represents a working permit that is awarded by educational authority. These requirements are related to the two most important links in the work of the institution, its human resources and infrastructure, in terms of number of students per each professor, administration staff, equipment and teaching aids, classrooms compared to the overall number of students and the number of students within a student group, and others (hea.gov.ba, 2017). Developed by the Agency, the licensing criteria for higher education institutions and their study programs is not the same in all parts of the country, as each particular part of the country has its own education authority responsible for giving a license to a higher education institution (hea.gov.ba, 2017).

Unlike licensing criteria, the mandatory standards in the higher education sector, as well as clear and accessible accreditation criteria, is equal for all private and public higher education institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina (ibid). Based on a thorough evaluation and quality assessment, accreditation is the process by which it is confirmed that higher education institution has fulfilled the set of education standards and criteria in its work (ibid). The criteria fulfilment is checked by an independent group of experts, appointed by a quality assurance body, in the process of external evaluation. Based on the criteria, among others, the accredited higher education institution needs to have its own quality assurance system with procedures established for the purpose of assuring quality of its study programs as well as infrastructure resources, procedures for student assessment, providing information for public and developing international relations. Only those academic degrees and diplomas that are issued by accredited higher education system, can be recognized (hea.gov.ba, 2017).

Role of Higher Education in Current Perspectives on Youth Employability

Almost on daily basis, various results of conducted surveys among youth in Bosnia and Herzegovina are subject of newspaper articles and TV news reports. When asked about the standard of living in BiH, most young people agree that it is low. In addition to this, young people believe the education system and the study programs in the country to be outdated.

The number of young people permanently leaving the country is defeating and discouraging. A survey conducted by the Institute for Youth DevelopmentKULT from 2013, in Federation of BiH, has shown that 60% of young people have pleaded to leave the country immediately if they had a chance, while 37% of young people in FBiH stated they would leave the country permanently and not return (klix.ba, Fena, 2014). According to the report “Diagnosis of the Labour Market” from 2015 made by Economic Institute Sarajevo, the unemployment rate was significantly higher among young people. In the age group 15 – 24 years, 59.1% of population was unemployed in 2013. The same report states that the unemployment rate was 17.55% among those with a higher education. Furthermore, results from the Labour Force Survey of BiH for 2015, conducted by the Agency for Statistics of Bosnia and Herzegovina, reveal an unemployment rate of youth in 2015 amounting up to 62.3%. On the other hand, the youth activity rate was only 32.2% in 2015 (Labour Force Survey, Final Results, 2015). The same Survey for year 2017 – preliminary data, states the unemployment rate was highest in the age group 15 – 24 years, 45.8% (bhas.ba, 2017).

The call for applications for enrolment, announced in June and July 2017, resulted in public higher education institution University of Sarajevo accepting slightly over 60% of the planned number of new students, due to an insufficient amount of applications submitted. Similar trend was recorded in the public higher education institution University of Mostar, which, in 2017, accepted 19.2% less students comparing to previous academic year (balkans.aljazeera.net, 2017).

As stated by Bosnian expert in labour market Erol Mujanović, the lack of progress in economic development, the lack of perspective and opportunities in the local environment as well as a high unemployment rate, are all factors leading to a high amount of young people searching for a more prosperous future across the borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Matić, 2016). The education system has a dominant influence on the quality of labour force, whilst the economy influences the quality and scope of labour demand. From this, it can be clearly remarked that the core problem is the incompatibility of the education system and the labour market. Mujanović believes that employers face difficulties in recruiting good employees in the country with over 60% of educated unemployed youth, and identifies the cause for this in the quality of education system, that does not provide students with necessary knowledge and skills for successful employment (ibid).

The aforementioned conclusions allude the importance of integration of educational system and labour market. More importantly, the report points out that higher education institutions should provide quality education and meet the needs of students, thus influencing their satisfaction.

The Decision-Making Process about the Enrolment

Enhancing student experience has a positive effect on student satisfaction. Since the experience with the higher education institution starts well before the actual enrolment to the university, more precisely, it starts in the final year of high-school, it is relevant to present the most important points in the decision-making process, as they are the starting points for creating student expectations. More importantly, it is necessary to understand how current students of higher education institutions, that are satisfied, can induce the decision-making process of prospective students, naturally all in favour of the particular institution.

A major decision in the life of a high-school student is the one regarding the choice of university and study program. Whether or not they have previous affinities or desires towards certain study program or vocations, during their final grade, high-school students are influenced by a number of factors when making the decision about their future, and are therefore sensitive, whilst under constant pressure.

They discuss their shortlist of potential universities with family members, close friends and high-school teachers. The next influential point in their decision-making process is certainly the experience of others, more precisely, the point of communication with current students of the particular university, when the prospective students ask for “first hand” information such as entrance exam details, the advantages and disadvantages of the academic programs, the university’s social environment, etc. Afterwards, prospective students go further in seeking for confirmation of their initial decision, through all available communication channels. Thus, prospective students start collecting information in order to get more familiar with the reputation and image of the particular university as well as perspectives offered by study programs (e.g. number of employed/unemployed with the particular vocation). At the end of this phase, prospective students are either still not completely persuaded about their initial decision or they will try to confirm their decision by visiting the particular university, when they will expect the university to meet or exceed their expectations. This presents itself as an ideal moment to influence the prospective but yet, indecisive students, seeking for the grand and final confirmation of their initial decision, or to influence prospective students who are still in the phase of choosing the universities for their shortlist.

The different factors of contact with the particular university influencing the prospective students’ perspective can be the physical appearance of the university (infrastructure), accessibility of the university staff, presentation, current students and other. In this, final phase of the selection process, one needs to be aware that this contact is established with a very sensitive group of prospective students, whose ultimate decision is equally triggered by both the rational and the emotional factors. The rational factors are mostly encouraged by the environment and people such as parents, friends, peers, high-school teachers, whereas the emotional factors involve their personal motives and hopes for the future.

Key Influencers of the Decision-Making Process about the Enrolment

Although they are usually labelled as the most trusted, parents are not necessarily the only influencer in the decision-making process about university enrolment. For prospective students, some high-school teachers or pedagogue are influential as well, and as such should not be neglected. The parents’ opinion is reflected mostly in assessing value for money, as it is up to them to decide whether a particular study program and/or university is worth funding. More precisely, the assessment is related to whether the particular choice of the university is within the framework of an affordable budget, with regards to the perspective of employment possibilities upon graduation from a particular study program and/or university. Ultimately, it is the parents who have the motivational role in the decision-making process, as they are the ones financing the studies.

Furthermore, high-school teachers, with tools such as their credibility and advices, can have a strong influence on young people and their decision-making process. This influence is reflected in motivation, because high-school students trust their teachers. Additionally, high-school teachers can influence parents as well, since they are considered to be the credible source of relevant information. Labour market indicators appear to be one of the important sources of information influencing decision-making process, because parents take into account the information provided by the Employment Bureau in the country, especially when it comes to vocations with highest or lowest employment rate.

Whether it is peers who are going through the same process or current students that have recently made such a decision, other young people are one of the most important sources of information for prospective students, due to their ability to share their recent experiences, especially when it comes to the transparency of enrolment, the academic challenges of the study program, other students’ competitiveness and image, etc.

Key External Factors for the Decision-Making Process about the Enrolment

When selecting a university in Bosnia and Herzegovina, key external factors usually are: the university brand, reputation, accreditation (recognition in both the country and worldwide), perspectives after graduating, financial affordability, recognition by future employers and the success of graduates on the labour market as well as in the academic world.

In BiH, as well as in most countries in the world, one of the key external factors when selecting a university, regardless of the fact is the university private or public, is the reputation of the institution, its recognition in the country (and worldwide) and the accreditation of the particular university. Every university has a certain reputation which plays a significant role in the decision-making process of the student and is also important to others, with parents regarded as a strong example. It is relevant to point out that the reputation is not only what is represented via advertisement, but also includes other aspects of the university: academic program, faculty, administration staff, facilities, teaching aids and equipment, library capacities, current students, alumni students, and others. Advertising shows how serious the particular university is, in its approach to building the image, and how well it understands and communicates with the target group.

However, it seems that, as in other services, the “face to face” campaign has higher influence within the decision-making process. Such campaigns for higher education institutions can be showcased in form of “Open door” events or university’s presentations in high schools. Through this kind of opportunities created by the university, the prospective students can become more comfortable with making a final decision regarding university. Sharing successful stories about the alumni students and the faculty are ways in which the curiosity of prospective students can be influenced and their motivation for becoming a student of a particular university can be stimulated.

The external factor that is also significant is the perspective of the university or the academic program in terms of ongoing demand for certain vocations on the labour market and the employment possibilities, as well as the degree recognition by future employers. Furthermore, the financial terms often dictate the selection and decision-making process as the financial affordability of studies, as well as the scholarships opportunities are of great importance in the decision-making process.

About the University SSST

The University – Sarajevo School of Science and Technology (University SSST) was established in October 2004, in Sarajevo, and is the oldest private university in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is believed that, with its establishment, a new era in higher education in BiH has started, as University SSST provides a platform for young students from Bosnia and Herzegovina to receive quality education, thus erasing the need to leave the country (ssst.edu.ba, 2017).

An established collaboration with the University of Buckingham (United Kingdom) made University SSST the only private university in BiH offering its graduates a dual degree. Through this collaboration, it meets BiH’s and UK’s academic guidelines and standards of teaching. It is the only university in the region of South-Eastern Europe monitored by the Quality Assurance Agency of United Kingdom, ensuring transparency and meeting the standards in teaching and examination procedures (ibid).

University SSST has internationally educated faculty members, many of whom have graduated from world’s leading universities. It offers internationally competitive and up-to-date academic programs. The official language of the University is English and the full curriculum is taught entirely in English language. As a result, the quality of writing, speaking, presenting and communicating that students gain in English is high, and helps build confidence among them, especially if their previous education did not incorporate a curriculum in English language. Students are given the latest editions of textbooks and materials specific to their field of studies, while all courses involve the use of contemporary e-learning technologies. They are taught in smaller groups, with one-to-one teachings available for each student.

When founding the University, the aim was to give young people the tools and opportunities to affect changes of Bosnian society and form a new mass of educated, competent and accomplished people who will be the decision makers, since young people are the greatest, but also the untapped source of BiH (ssst.edu.ba, 2017). The Agency for the Development of Higher Education and Quality Assurance of Bosnia and Herzegovina accredited the University SSST, making it the first private higher education institution in BiH to receive the accreditation (ibid). With this accreditation, the education provided by this particular higher education institution is compatible with European standards and recognizable in the international context, as the Agency is acknowledged in the European Higher Education Area.

The Position of University SSST in the Private Education Market in BiH

Regardless of which industry the particular service belongs to, each service has its market and accordingly, its competitors. Therefore, it is necessary to determine the position of the University SSST within the education sector and the market itself. A clearer picture of the position on the market can be identified through the Porter Five Forces Model, which provides the qualitative evaluation of the market position and strengths of the University SSST, within the education sector.

In the case of education services, the suppliers of the University are the professors. Given that the University hires internationally educated and experienced professors, who are required to teach in English, it can be noted that the bargaining power of suppliers is high. In case of the University of SSST, the bargaining power of customers is high since the university is a private higher education institution. This means that the customers, which are in this case students, can end up choosing another private higher education institution because they are less price sensitive and have the possibility to pay tuition. On the other hand, students with high grades and great high-school success can choose which university to enrol in, since they are most likely to have a scholarship, even at a private university. In recent years, there is an increasing number of private higher education institutions, however, their quality and reputation do not seem to pose a threat. In addition, the threat of new entries is not yet high for the University SSST, since it is the oldest private university in the country and has already a grand reputation. Threat of substitute products is still low in the private higher education sector for the University, due to the threat of replacing the offer and service of the University SSST with other, being still low. Primarily, this is because of the dual degree issued by Bosnia and Herzegovina and the United Kingdom, which is not offered by any other higher education institution in the country.

The service consumers shape the service through the manifestation of their preferences and needs. Although the education is a service of a specific nature, the behaviour of students can be perceived from the perspective of consumer behaviour as the students are consumers of the education service. In order to successfully communicate the value of the education service and the offer of the University SSST to its student, it is necessary to understand the student’s needs and the alignment of the particular offer with the needs.

For the purpose of acknowledging and viewing the students as the consumers of the education service, focus groups were assembled, consisting of on average of five undergraduate students, across all five faculties of the University SSST. This approach to analysis of the University through focus group sessions, helped in providing a closer understanding of different aspects of education service a student needs and values. In this finding lies a great importance, since values ​​that distinguish one university from another represent its strategic advantage. Following the sessions with the current students of the University SSST, the following preferred standards have been identified: dual diploma, qualified and internationally educated professors, limited/smaller number of students in the class, faculty’s individual work and dedication to students and infrastructure.

Students from focus group sessions claim that, apart from the public education and universities in Bosnia and Herzegovina being outdated, they also cease to convey the necessary knowledge and skills to their students. For those students who are not able, financially, to afford any private university, one of the main concerns about the enrolment to a public university is the bad positioning, of Bosnian public universities, in the world. On the other hand, private universities in BiH are considered to be in line with the trends and better equipped than public universities. However, there is also the greater and more general concern among prospective students and their close environment, about their recognition within and by the academic community and future employment in BiH upon graduation from that particular private university.

Brand Position of the University SSST

From the perspective of its current students, who have participated in the previously-mentioned focus group sessions, and from what their colleagues and friends from other higher education institutions have shared with them, the brand of the University SSST is perceived as sophisticated and elitist. Being the oldest private university in Bosnia and Herzegovina, they regard the brand of University as strong. However, their perception of being elitist is more of a negative matter, because as such, the University can be considered as high above the usual potential, thus inaccessible for the best prospective students. If the overall strategy of the University is focused on excellence, hence on attracting the best prospective students there are (regardless of their financial capabilities), then the current brand perception and the brand position of sophistication is inadequate. If the University’s target group are competent prospective students, such students that do not have the financial capability to afford private higher education will not identify with the current perception of the University, ergo the University will, for them, present something inaccessible. Although the University communicates scholarship possibilities that can offset the tuition for these students, it still might be viewed as an institution and environment accepting only a carefully selected group of prospective students. These barriers to positive perception of the University can lead to the decline in enrolment, but from an even more unfortunate side, in loss of enrolling excellent prospective students, as it will dissuade them from choosing the University SSST.

The focus group sessions offered an insight to the positive aspects of the University SSST brand, as perceived by the student. For most students, these include the educated professors and their dedication to each student. Moreover, smaller student groups appear to encourage the participation of all students in class. Students continued to state that the University SSST is applying international standards in study programs and classes, as well as an up-to-date teaching methods. The positive aspect is the faculty members who have high academic credentials from international universities across the world, but also the experience in their fields of expertise. Current students stress that the modern teaching style allows them to have easier access to professors, who, in turn, devote more time to their students.

The University SSST attempts to provide all necessary facilities and equipment to its students, while paying attention to the aesthetics and details. It is considered by its students to be one of the best equipped and up-to-date universities in BiH, with its IT labs, one of the most representative medical laboratories in the country, as well as a well-equipped production studio and its own cinema room at the Sarajevo Film Academy.

Promotion

As the service is far from physical presence, it is harder for the service provider to create a marketing strategy, because the service is under subjective perception by the consumer (Babić-Hodović, 2002).

At the General Assembly for Staff of the University SSST held in November 2016, the executive director presented data showing that only 2.5% of the overall costs made by the University SSST are advertisement and PR costs. For purpose of collecting more information about the marketing activities of the University for this project, University PR office shared that the advertising activities are organized in collaboration with the marketing agency, who has been hired by the University SSST in recent years. The agency’s role is to create a campaign for promoting the call for applications to the University. Although some promoting activities start earlier, such as the Winter Academy held in January each year, the campaign, for promoting enrolment into the upcoming academic year, officially starts in February. The process of creating a campaign involves carrying out the visuals and slogans used on all promotional materials. The information shared by the University PR Office, did not escape the notice of advertising being mostly conventional (via billboards, short TV commercials on local commercial TV stations, posters, daily newspaper ads) with social networking (mostly via Facebook) and official website. Furthermore, direct marketing activities are organized, such as presentations at high-schools, Open Day events, newsletters.

Given the education service and the opportunities the University offers to its prospective students, along with the efforts made in advertising activities during the previous academic year, the response to the call for application is unsatisfactory (General Assembly for Staff of University SSST, 2016). The above explained approach of the University to marketing, resulting in promotional activities only, can justify the lack of marketing strategy and reflect the statement of Kotler. According to Kotler (1979), when, for example, the enrolment of students has declined, there are higher education institutions that respond with an attempt of marketing reflected in promotion. Kotler (1979) disapproves of this kind of reaction, calling it an illusion of proper response to declining enrolment. Furthermore, it slows down the crucial work on product improvement, which presents the basis of student satisfaction and good marketing.

The Challenges for the University SSST

After a qualitative analysis of the University SSST’s position in the market and a short presentation of its promotion activities, this project proceeds with the identification of important challenges for the University that should be addressed. The lack of marketing strategy is considered as the biggest challenge, while, simultaneously, it is creating additional challenges that are interrelated, as they are at the brand and offer perception levels.

The brand perception is highly significant for every organisation, including universities. Institutions with high reputation and positive brand perception gain on their market value. At a time when knowledge is becoming one of the most important resources for economic development and given the increasing number of higher education institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is necessary for institutions to build their reputation among students and other stakeholders. This is because positive image and good reputation help shape the leading position on the market, but in society as well. Babić-Hodović (2002) assorted that it also affects building trust as the customers tend to trust the institutions, with a clear brand identity and a positive image, more. Although perceived as strong, the University SSST brand has somewhat of a negative perception of being elitist, thus accessible only to selected group of young people. Such image affects the perceptions of the offer.

The University SSST offers internationally competitive and up-to-date study programs. Considering the fact that it grants a number of scholarships every academic year, it can be argued that the tuition fee itself is not one of the key discarding factors when discussing the offer of the University SSST. From a different perspective, this statement can serve as an indication that the perception of the brand being elitist can affect the enrolment process, since it seems that prospective students do not take the advantage of scholarship opportunities for enrolment, possibly because they perceive the University overall as above their potential. This raises another issue of offered study programs not being communicated properly and clearly. Consequently, the communication of the brand and its alignment with the brand identity is somewhat unclear.

Education Service Quality as the Determinant of Student Satisfaction

The higher education institutions are not ordinary service providers, as the education itself has many specifics. Further, the goals of education institutions are not the same as of other companies that are service providers, because these institutions are non-profit oriented, hence they do not have shareholders that are expecting earnings as a return on their investments. Due the mentioned distinctive features of education, the satisfaction with the quality of education service and the education institution cannot be analysed in the same manner as the satisfaction with other services and their providers. The relations between the quality of the education service and the students as the service consumers are different than in other service-provider organisation. According to Ford, Joseph and Joseph (1999), this is the reason behind the fact that many traditional business rules and practices cannot be applied to education institutions. In addition, their strategy is affected by the government policies and legislation, because education is an important part of the overall national strategy of any country, which is another reason that the education institutions cannot be compared to other companies.

The aims of the higher education institution should be promptness to fulfil its educational and research purpose, to build student satisfaction through the positive university experience (from enrolment, through lectures, exams and graduation, until the start of professional carriers) and to provide greater value for money. Ultimately, the key aim of the education institution is to ensure, improve and guarantee the quality of the education service, because raising the quality raises the institution’s efficiency (Babić-Hodović and Činjarević, 2009).

The institutions should focus on their competitive advantages over their competition and improving their service quality. Only the quality of the education can make an institution stand out among the midst, which is why, according to Babić-Hodović and Činjarević (2009), they are quickly becoming aware of the high significance of quality.

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