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Interview: Using data to deliver a better student experience

25 January 2024

“Data is becoming more and more important in the future of any business,” says Kim Nisbett, Head of Insight at Unite Students.

We caught up with Kim about her award-winning Insight and Analytics team, how they use data to help teams make informed, long-term decisions, and how our student panel challenges assumptions about what students want.


Q: How did you get into the world of insight and analytics?

A: Most of my career has been at Unite Students – I’ve been here 20 years in April. I started off in the finance team, but it got to a point where I didn’t feel I had much more I could get out of it. Then an opportunity came up to be a Market Intelligence Manager.

It was a really good opportunity to do something quite different to what I’d been doing, but still using numbers and being analytical. In finance you’re quite focused on in-year performance and I thought it would be interesting to be more forward-looking and seeing what the future’s going to look like.

It was exciting to think about how we could use data to better understand the market and our performance within it, but it was quite hard to get our hands on that data and to produce the visuals that we wanted to. We were doing everything in Excel at that time. So when we launched a business intelligence function, it was a real opportunity for us to improve what we were doing in terms of data and insight. Eventually, I ended up heading up the team.

It’s so much more interesting than what I was doing before. I love the use of data to look at both current performance and what the future might look like.


What are some of the functions that the insight and analytics teams performs at Unite Students, and how has that developed over time?

There are three key areas or functions that we try to provide. The first one, and most well-established within the business, is business intelligence reporting. We’ve done a huge amount to develop our reporting and really understand what our teams need to manage and drive performance. What we’ve done in the last year has been very much driven by our key stakeholders -teams like the commercial team, the people team and central operations – to understand what they want to see from us and working side-by-side with them to deliver it.

Data governance is something we’ve taken on more in the last year. You need really good foundational data to make the most of data science or, increasingly, AI within an organisation. To get that foundation, there needs to be governance: making sure that we understand what data is the most important to us, where it’s stored, how we manage it, what processes need to sit around it and who owns all of that. We’ve just launched a data governance forum to identify any issues and how we can resolve them.

Then the third one, which is the most exciting one but the hardest to do, is how we use analytics internally to look at the future and support decision-making. We’re starting to work on things like sustainability, and we’re looking at what’s going on in the higher education sector in terms of UCAS and Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data, looking to really understand the market. It’s bringing all that together and saying, “What does that mean? Where do we want to invest?”

That function is supported by our customer research programme, listening to what our residents are telling us and looking at how we use that to shape where we want to go and what we want to do.


Tell us more about the research programme – what are some of the most surprising things you’ve learned from our residents?

We have both surveys that go to all our residents, and a student panel. We send out four surveys a year: one at check-in; one at check-out; and the Global Student Living Index surveys in autumn and spring. The Index allows us to see our performance in comparison to our competitors, and that’s been really important – if we’re seeing a trend, we now know if it’s consistent with what everybody else is experiencing.

The thing that most consistently comes out of those surveys is that we have to deliver the basics. A clean room when they turn up, and quick resolution of any maintenance issues. They’re the two things that continually come up on the survey. We can do all the bells and whistles, but they’re really the fundamentals that we need to be delivering.

We have about 4,000 students on our panel who we can survey throughout the year on small initiatives, or have face-to-face focus groups sometimes. We sometimes see that our assumptions about students’ priorities aren’t quite right. We can be quite practical in terms of thinking they’re worried about safety, for example. But they often surprise us because, actually, they want a lot of independence. Knowing what our residents think allows us to challenge assumptions and think differently about the student experience.


Your team won the ‘Teamwork Award’ at our employee Stars Awards in November. How did it feel to win – and what’s the secret to great collaboration with other teams?

It’s amazing for the team and nice to see them recognised for all their hard work. It’s a really nice team environment to work in and we all really help each other out.

In terms of what’s worked for us with teamwork, we’ve really focused on business partnering, so identifying who our key stakeholders within the business were at the start of the year, and which individuals were going to work with those teams. They’ve become really embedded in the other teams to understand what they really want and work with them to deliver it. It’s that point again of not working on our own – we must be driven by what the business is wanting and needing.

The more we work with them, the more they’ll let us know if the reporting isn’t quite what it needs to be, or if the data doesn’t look quite right. Although that can create more work for us, it means it’s pushing us to be better and create things that are usable for what they want. Now we’ve got a range of reports that people are actively using on a daily basis.

Everything we’ve delivered, we’ve delivered in collaboration with another team. There’s nothing we’ve delivered on our own.


Do you have any tips on how to make data-driven decisions?

People are often scared of data. Scared to look at it, scared to use it, scared it might show something they don’t want to see. For me, it’s about always being open to looking at the data, using it within your teams and discussing it. Don’t get caught up on whether it’s right or wrong. It sparks debate and helps you talk about your performance, and even if it’s wrong, that’s fine; it means there’s something wrong with your data collection processes or input, and we shouldn’t shy away from that as it can be corrected.

In terms of using it to make decisions, don’t try and make the data fit what you think something should be. Use the data to challenge what you think, because that’s where it’s most powerful. We found this a lot in our market intelligence data and understanding different cities. Sometimes we’ll hear a certain narrative about a particular city, but the data is really good at sense-checking that narrative and keeping us informed. We can then use that to drive our conversations with university partners.


What are some of your priorities for 2024?

I mentioned sustainability earlier –  there’s a massive opportunity, specifically in terms of looking at our utilities data like water and electricity consumption. We already calculate that at the end of the year, but we want to do more so there’s an ongoing measurement through the year.

Data is becoming more and more important in the future of any business; the scope of what you can do with it and how it can help the organisation is increasing all the time. Some of the things people want from us will dramatically change how we work, and have a big impact without having to do huge amounts of work.  It’s particularly exciting to think about how it can improve the student experience – that’s where it has the most impact.

To learn more about how Unite Students uses data to drive improvements in the student experience, read our interview with Alice Bone, Contact Centre Manager.

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