Colleges and universities in the UK are offering local gift cards as part of their student experience strategies as they plan for students to return to face to face learning in September. The higher education facilities are using local Town and City Gift Cards to give students access to a range of retail, leisure, hospitality and services, as part of ongoing efforts to help students engage with their local area to enhance their student experience.
Student experience will become increasingly important for higher education facilities following the pandemic. The 2021 National Student Survey of over 300,000 students around the UK found that the pandemic caused a decline in students’ overall satisfaction with their course, from 83.7% in 2019 to 75.4% in 2021. A separate ONS report found that the lack of face to face learning had a major or moderate impact on the quality of their course for 61% of students. However for distance learners, already studying remotely, overall satisfaction remained stable, at 83.5% in both 2019 and 2021.
The ONS also found that life satisfaction scores for students were at 5.9 out of a possible 10 in May 2021, significantly lower than the British adult population average at 7.1/10, suggesting that initiatives that encourage students to engage in their local community could be of benefit. A first degree remains the most popular type of higher education, with 611,390 students undertaking these courses in 2019/20, up 5% year on year. There were 2,532,385 students in 2019/20, just over 28% were international students.
One of the colleges taking a proactive approach to student experience using local gift cards is Bournemouth University International College, which offers pathway courses in association with Bournemouth University. Bournemouth University International College has used the Bournemouth Town Centre Gift Card for students for over 3 years. The Bournemouth Town Centre Gift Card is one of the 100 plus Town and City Gift Card schemes around the UK and Ireland, local gift cards from payments provider Miconex that can be spent with multiple businesses in a particular area.
Rachel Woodward Carrick is College Director at Bournemouth University International College and said: “We use the Bournemouth Town Centre Gift Card for our students because it meets a wide range of needs. They can use it to buy food or clothes, on a meal or a trip to the cinema. For those students who have been studying remotely, their gift card will be waiting for them when they arrive. It’s like giving them an invitation to go out and explore Bournemouth, with ideas of where to go.”
Rachel says the Bournemouth Town Centre Gift Card is a gateway to the community for their students, as well as being a way for the College to support local and contribute to the vibrancy of the town:
“During the academic year, students might receive a gift card as a prize for grades or for their group work, and go out together as a group for a meal. We need our students to practice their English and be in social situations, and the gift card encourages that. Our students come to us for up to one year, and they are more likely to stay on to study at Bournemouth University for their degree if they experience Bournemouth as a local. The gift card is a gateway to the community. As students feel more comfortable and confident, they are also more likely to get involved in other activities, such as volunteer work which greatly adds to their student experience.
“Instead of a single retailer gift card, we wanted to give our students something with value that also benefits the local economy. The gift card is well received by students, they like the social element of it. As a local organisation, and a local employer, it is important for us to contribute to the vibrancy of Bournemouth, which in turn makes it an attractive choice for international students. We have to market Bournemouth as a destination.”
Susie O’Neill, Business Liaison Officer at Bournemouth Town Centre BID said: “The beauty of the Bournemouth Town Centre Gift Card is the breadth of opportunities it offers for students. It helps them to connect with Bournemouth and come to love the town as much as we do. For colleges and universities, buying the gift card for their students and staff is a tangible way for them to support other businesses and the town.”
Universities and colleges are also using local gift cards to support students experiencing financial hardship or during unforeseen situations. Rachel adds: “Local gift cards could form part of contingency planning for higher education providers. For example, if students are unable to access on-site facilities for a time, universities or halls of residence could provide students with a local Town and City Gift Card so they can quickly and easily access the food, toiletries and other essentials they need.”
Tydfil Training is part of a large group of educators including The College Merthyr Tydfil and University of South Wales
and concentrates on work based learning programmes. Tydfil Training used the We Love Merthyr Gift Card to reward students for educational success. Paul Gray is Chief Executive of Tydfil Training and said rewarding students with a local gift card aligns with their strategy of working collaboratively with employers:
“We looked at various gift cards to reward students, but felt that if we used the We Love Merthyr Gift Card the impact would be two-fold. Firstly, in encouraging learners to engage with the high street and secondly, in supporting the locality where these young people live. These are the organisations that can ultimately provide paid employment for our students. It’s a small indicator of our commitment to Merthyr town centre and the South Wales Valleys, and it’s a message that resonates with our learners. They don’t have to go off to the city to find work, we can create a strong, successful economy right here in Merthyr.
“The local gift card concept appeals to our students, they are more aware of environmental issues and understand the benefits of shopping locally. As many of the businesses on the We Love Merthyr Gift Card are small business owners, it also ties in with the principles of entrepreneurship that we actively promote, encouraging our students to engage with these local entrepreneurs. When we use the We Love Merthyr Gift Card as a reward, the investment we make in Merthyr stays in Merthyr. There tends to be lots of negativity about the demise of the high street, but if we don’t support our businesses, then we get what we deserve.”
Another university using local gift cards for students is The University of Edinburgh. Mica Teo is completing her PhD in data science at the University, also working as a resident assistant, providing support and guidance to resident students. Mica opts for an Edinburgh Gift Card to encourage students to take part in events and engage in the community:
“The benefits of the Edinburgh Gift Card are that it’s local, and it’s good to support local but it also offers far more choice for the students than if I bought a single retailer gift card. The Edinburgh Gift Cards I give out are for £5 or £10, so students mainly use their gift card for food and other essentials, so they can go to Sainsbury’s or Marks and Spencer, get things from Boots or go to local independent shops. One gift card can accommodate lots of people.”
Mica believes that a local gift card is a useful gift for someone going off to university, saying: “Most students now get their books second hand, and what they really need is to cover their living expenses, so food and toiletries are always top of the list. It’s something handy they can keep in their back pocket until they need it.”
Colin Munro, managing director of Miconex said there are many opportunities to use local gift cards in higher education facilities: “The pandemic has brought unforeseen challenges for universities and colleges, but also for their students. A higher education facility might use a local gift card to disburse funds to students, as hardship payments for students, or even for contingency planning. As Town and City Gift Cards work through the Mastercard network, they’re secure and offer outstanding choice for students.”