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International student satisfaction: role of resources and capabilities.

Abstract

This study investigates service marketing in higher education by examining the influence of resources and capabilities in international students' satisfaction with a higher education institution and the likelihood of their recommending it to prospective students. The results suggest that, of the six hypothesized antecedents to student satisfaction, four were significant. For students to recommend a tertiary educational institute, only two of five hypothesized antecedents were significant. Finally, we hypothesized that student satisfaction mediates the relationship between capabilities and recommending the institution. Three hypotheses out of six were supported. The data is analyzed through path modeling, which results in a holistic perspective of the relationships among the constructs. Finally, we discuss the implications of these results to university administrators.

Introduction

There has been unprecedented demand for higher education because "global wealth is concentrated less and less in factories and the land, and more and more in knowledge and skills" (Power 2000). Universities in most developed economies have responded to these challenges through expansion of knowledge delivery options and through appealing to different sets of potential students. The 'global' dimension of higher education makes universities part of world markets with a new system of relationships (Marginson 2000). It is associated with "the rise of all sorts of entrepreneurial activities" (Pratt and Poole 1999/2000). This has gradually transformed universities into largely self-funded enterprises where value is created through forming, packaging and delivering content to students to meet international market demand for specialized training and education. The rapid growth of international students in traditional classrooms suggests that, in their striving for higher education, students pursue values that differ from cost saving on education since cheaper alternatives are available. This pursuit of different values may be because face-to-face education in a foreign country achieves several objectives. These include improving students' language skills, providing an opportunity for independence from parents, experiencing different cultures and generally gaining new life experiences. It is noteworthy that the five main education exporters USA, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (Marshall 2002) are all English-speaking countries. This shows that English is not only a widely accepted international business language but also a medium for many curriculum programs. The increase in demand for slots by international students, at least in Australia, has given universities more opportunities in selecting international students with better academic qualifications, rather than emphasizing the students' ability to pay. This allows for raising and/or maintenance of standards and, for the protecting university name and reputation, which are essential for competition for students and university financial prosperity. As overseas student numbers have grown, universities have increasingly paid attention to cultural, individual and national differences. This has led to the development of educational programs and organizational support structures within universities that facilitate learning and ease of adjustment to the local environment. Foreign students contribute a significant proportion of revenue to many universities suggesting there is a need to closely examine drivers of student satisfaction to enable university administrators to more effectively deploy their resources and capabilities.

The Role of the Student in the Educational Setting

To define the drivers of student satisfaction, one needs to initially understand the role of the student in an educational setting. Despite the fact that the topic of higher education evaluation has been studied extensively from different perspectives such as student satisfaction with quality of courses and teaching (Athiyaman, 1997; Oldfield & Baron, 2000; Yanhong Li & Kaye, 1998) or student evaluations of the teaching process (Simpson & Siguaw, 2000; Marks, 2000), previous research has not contributed to the development of a holistic model of student satisfaction within higher education institutions. This failure is partly explained by the fact that tertiary educational institutions do not only offer academic services but also supplementary services aimed at providing a valuable learning experience, generating student satisfaction, and increasing the likelihood of current students recommending the institution to prospective students. The present study is aimed at overcoming shortcomings of previous research through incorporating a number of resources and capabilities into a conceptual model of international student satisfaction and willingness to recommend the university to prospective students.

We begin by discussing the different roles students may perform in an educational setting. Students may be viewed as customers buying a highly valued service. This perspective suggests students undergo consumption and post-consumption behavior. Thus, satisfied students engage in word-of-mouth communication, recommend potential students to the university, return to complete higher degrees (repeat purchase), cooperate by offering placements for current students or by giving guest lectures and becoming valued alumni.

Another perspective states that students should be seen as clients receiving the services of an educational professional. From this perspective, students have an understanding of their own needs but are reliant on the expert advice of professionals, and they expect to be "personally improved" (Guolla 1999), i.e. intellectually developed by the lecturers. On the other hand, Armstrong (1995) sees students as producers. This implies students take responsibility for their learning; the university, in turn, becomes a set of resources and capabilities that facilitate learning. Finally, students can be conceived of as 'products' (Guolla 1999). Upon graduation, students offer themselves as a package of benefits to be purchased by those seeking such products in the labor market. It is easy to realize that as clients, students are concerned with the process, while as products, students are concerned with outcomes.

In this study we adopt a mix of client and product perspectives since these appears consistent with the missions of most universities. The services students receive in the universities are complex and multi-faceted. The quality of education undoubtedly plays a great role in students' satisfaction and should be the prime concern of universities. However, other determinants of student satisfaction include the quality of the learning environment, access to up-to-date technology, quality of library services, availability of quality student services and the student orientation of the institutions.

In this study we classify resources in the following way' resources such as classroom technology and library facilities and student services are tangible resources. On the other hand, teaching, learning and student orientation are classified as organizational capabilities. The conceptual model is presented in Fig. 1. See issue's website <http://rapidintellect.com/AEQweb/win2002.htm>

Recourses

Classroom and Technology Facilities

This is conceptualized to cover a broad range of supportive infrastructure, but is more specifically concerned with the combined teaching and learning experience. Class sizes and adequate air-conditioning may be sources of student dissatisfaction. Large classes are economical to run, but they create a highly impersonal environment that may lead to student dissatisfaction through deindividualisation. Guolla (1999) noted, "students' satisfaction may be influenced by poor quality of classroom facilities of which instructors may have limited resources to change" (p. 90). Allied to this, the technology available may be a source of satisfaction. Up-to-date computer hardware and software that allow the lecturers and students to exploit the advances in technology can be a source of satisfaction.

Library

Our approach includes the library as a determinant of student satisfaction is based on the observation that libraries frequently re-examine their activities and look for meaningful performance measures (Cronin, 2000, Marshall, 2000) based on customer-centric concepts including frequently measuring indicators of customer satisfaction. As noted by Hernon and Altman (1998), special librarians and subject specialists in university libraries probably come closer to treating their users as clients. This has led to the use of such terms as value, service quality, and customer satisfaction in library services. Librarians increasingly use advanced technology to access electronic resources and this strengthens their positions as important resources for students. In most Australian universities students actively participate in library committees and are able to influence decisions about resources, technology, operating times, etc.

Student Services

Universities are often innovative and creative in delivering new courses and subjects in their aspiration to attract new students; however they need to closely monitor the additional needs of students outside of academic programs. Students' age, financial situation, psychological pressure, language skills, etc demand different varieties of support services. Paying attention to these needs might make the learning process more efficient and productive (Zammuto et al, 1996). Depending on the stage in the life cycle of the student, these services may be critical to the ability to pursue tertiary studies. For example, in the first semester, during transition from high school to university, students might need additional counselling whereas in the final years they require more career guidance. Student services capture the set of activities that support the general teaching and learning environment. These include such areas as counselling services, career guidance, health services, financial assistance, and childcare services.

Capabilities

Teaching

One of the greatest assets of any university is the quality of the teaching staff. Teaching is an organizational capability central to student satisfaction. The term "teaching" is used to describe several complex and inter-linked concepts such as face-to-face delivery, quality of notes and other support material, and student feedback. In part, it is a summation of lecturer performance, ability to inspire and motivate students and willingness to help when called upon to. The notion carries connotations of equity, empathy, devotion to duty and an intellectual commitment to teaching.

Learning

One of the factors for improving educational quality is creating a supportive learning environment. Professional associations, managers, public institutions and parents are demanding that educational institutions be not only more accountable for the programs they deliver to students, but that they also become effective facilitators of learning creating conditions where effective learning can take place (Adrian and Palmer 1999).

An examination of the educational literature reveals different concepts of the learning process. Among them are productive reasoning, productive constructivism and holistic learning (Adrian & Palmer, 1999; Argyris, 1997). Learning is the process that the student engages in to acquire knowledge. It encompasses what can be called the learning atmosphere. As discussed above, students may consider themselves customers (productive reasoning) and, hence, place a greater burden of learning outcomes on the teachers. However, students are more likely to be successful if they consider themselves as clients (productive constructivism). This encourages them to bring expectations that can be achieved through mutually working with a specialist (teacher). However, students who conceive themselves as co-producers (holistic approach) take full responsibility for their learning, and these students use teachers and other resources to support their effort and ensure more successful outcomes. Depending on the student's concept of their role in the learning environment, the configuration of resources and capabilities that drive satisfaction will vary.

Student orientation

We use student orientation as a surrogate for organizational culture. This measure parallels Narver and Slater (1990) in its conceptualization. We conceptualize student orientation as an organizational culture that places the needs of the students at the center of the operations of tertiary institution. We see it as comprised of three dimensions. Student focus we define as the organization's willingness to serve students better than competitors, creating superior value for current and future students. The second dimension is competitor orientation (Narver and Slater 1990). We argue that tertiary institutions are no longer insulated from competition, so these institutions need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of current and future competitors to compete and survive. Finally, we include coordination to reflect the need for program directors to manage their subject offerings to ensure a coherent study package for students. This involves cooperating in designing courses, and sequencing them for maximum student learning. Research suggests there is a strong link between student orientation and student satisfaction (Narver and Slater, 1990).

Satisfaction and Recommending

Satisfaction

Student satisfaction is a useful dependent variable because it is relatively unambiguous. However, there may be an issue of whether satisfaction is a post-consumptive measure or a cumulative measure. In this research, we conceptualize satisfaction as a cumulative measure given that all the participants were in their second or latter years of study. We were also interested in a summated measure given our focus on the strategic level of analysis (university experience) as opposed to specific aspects of studying (subjects). In addition we also chose satisfaction as the most appropriate measure given the difficulties of obtaining other satisfactory data.

Previous researchers note the importance and extreme complexity of satisfaction (Giese and Coat 2000). In identifying the degree of satisfaction with a university, we carefully determined a pool of resources/capabilities that are likely to be valuable to (with a particular set of benefits and values for) international students. In general, consumer satisfaction is a result of comparing performance to a standard. However, in the context of university education, our research assumes that students usually do not have a benchmark to evaluate their satisfaction. Additionally, student expectations, before enrolling, will have been transformed, changed or eroded by the time they are in their second and subsequent years in the university. Hence some of the variables normally associated with satisfaction studies did not appear relevant to this study such as perceived quality, price/fee and communication.

Recommending

Higher education is widely recognized as a service sector that is under pressure to devote a significant investment of resources and time "to identifying and enhancing the quality of the student experience" and therefore satisfaction (Long et al, 1999). The concept of recommending is closely related to satisfaction and loyalty. The decision of former students to recommend an institution to prospective students may be motivated by many factors. We consider that satisfaction with their own learning experience is probably one of the most powerful motives, especially if the prospective students are members of one's family, neighbors or children of close associates (Bone, 1995; Mangold et al, 1999). For the prospective students, such recommendations reduce the level of perceived risk and uncertainty often associated with service purchase decisions (Wakefield and Blodgett 1994). Hennig-Thurau et al (2001) developed a conceptual model of student loyalty based on relationship marketing theory. Summarizing previous research, they identified why student loyalty is vitally important to universities and higher education service providers. Loyal students can be viewed from different perspectives. As a current student, s/he can contribute and facilitate the studying process in the class through own motivation and interest; in the future, the student can provide different forms of support to the university such as financial support, promotion through word-of-mouth, cooperating in offering placements for students and participating in research projects. From these observations, we hypothesize that student satisfaction is significantly related to the likelihood of recommending the institution to prospective students.

Research Methodology

Sample

The sample for this study came from students in their second or latter years at one public university. The study was carried out at three campuses. The students were offered a three-page questionnaire to complete. Classes were randomly chosen over a five-day period to ensure the sample was as representative as possible. The questionnaire was pre-tested to check for clarity and effectiveness in communication, ease of completion and absence of ambiguous questions. The final questionnaire was distributed during class time for self-completion. All measures had been used in previous studies. However, some questions needed modifications to be relevant to a sample of students. Second and third year students were chosen because they were better informed than the first year, they had experience with the teaching and learning environment, and they possibly had engaged in recommending others to study at the same university. A total sample of 134 international students was obtained, and they were almost equally split between males and females. The response rate was a high (85%) suggesting a keen interest in the topic by the respondents. In this study, there was a predominance of students from South-east Asia, China, Korea, and the Indian subcontinent. However, British, French and Italian students were fairly represented.

Instrument development

All the measures utilized existing scales e.g. student orientation was derived from the Narver and Slater (1990) market orientation scale with appropriate modifications for an educational setting. Where no existing scales were identified new ones were developed, for example, student services. All the scales had Cronbach [alpha]'s greater than .70 recommended by Nunnally (1978). All measures were based on a 7-point Likert-type scale. The reliability of scales is shown in Table 1.

Results and Discussions

The data, in SPSS 10, was analyzed using path model in AMOS 4. Model statistics indicate that the data fits the model rather well, [[chi square].sub.(2)] =2,090, p=.352; GFI=.999, AGFI=.964; NFI=.998, TLI=.998, CFI= 1.000; RMSEA=.009. The results (see Table 1) indicate that two hypotheses for student satisfaction are not supported. Student satisfaction is very strongly related to students' willingness to recommend. The following factors such as learning, library services and provision of support student services lead to student satisfaction. Quality of teaching and educational technology is not significantly associated with student satisfaction. See issue's website <http://rapidintellect.com/AEQweb/win2002. htm>

The quality of teaching is positively related to recommending. These results raise interesting questions. They suggest that in addition to student satisfaction, only the quality of teaching is critical for students to recommend the institution to prospective students. The results further suggest that student satisfaction mediates the relationships between quality of learning, library services and student services and recommending. Thus only H13, H14 and H17 are supported.

Conclusion and Implications

These research results are interesting and significant in several respects. The findings demonstrate that not all resources and capabilities are important in influencing student satisfaction, and their willingness to recommend the institution to prospective students. The weak relationship between quality of teaching and satisfaction might reflect the differences in teacher-student relations in different cultures. For example, in some Asian cultures lecturers, are seen more as instructors to he trusted and to act as mentors, while other cultures see academics as professionals whose main function is to facilitate learning. However, the strength of the association between quality of teaching and recommending suggests that having outstanding faculty (teaching) staff is a critical resource for a university. We note that the relationships among student orientation, quality of learning, library facilities and student support services are strong. The correlations are high suggesting that, from a managerial point of view, these resources and capabilities should be seen as a gestalt. They are mutually supportive and as a result under-investing in any one might lead to lower student satisfaction and lack of recommending. Finally, student satisfaction is seen as an important mediator of the relationship between resources and capabilities and recommending. Thus achieving student satisfaction is important for students to recommend the institution to prospective students. From the point of view of the university being recommended to prospective students by current students is important since it is cost-effective and highly credible.

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Mark Gabbott, Monash University, Australia
Felix Mavondo, Monash University, Australia
Yelena Tsarenko, Monash University, Australia


Gabbott--Professor of Marketing, Head of Department of Marketing, completed his Ph.D at University of Stirling (UK). Mavondo--Associate professor in Marketing, did his Ph.D. in strategic marketing, Monash University. Tsarenko--Research fellow, department of Marketing, received her PhD in Kiev International University of Civil Aviation (Ukraine) in Economics.
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Author:Tsarenko, Yelena
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2002
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