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Universities must improve their applicant communication

Josephine Hansom Managing Director, Youth 06/04/2021

The Covid-19 crisis means universities need to start communicating clearly, honestly, positively – and quickly with their current undergraduate applicants.

But for many universities, including some of the most prestigious, this isn’t necessarily their strongest suit. They need to admit this to themselves and take action to turn that around fast. The financial and reputational stakes are high for universities and even higher for the applicants and students considering their next steps.

Covid-19 has brought with it a huge threat to the financial stability of universities."

YouthSight – Undergraduate Success – part of the Higher Education Success Suite (HESS) – 2019/20 cohort data. Axes based on percentage of new students strongly agreeing with each of the following statements (both statements start “Thinking back to when you were choosing universities, do you agree or disagree that your university…” a) Had a good reputation as a university, overall and b) Dealings with me were good, overall.  N=~12,000.  Contact YouthSight for a full specification of the HESS.

Applicant thinking is currently on the horns of a dilemma: start university this September and receive predominantly online teaching and risk missing out on a ‘real’ university experience, or defer for a year and struggle with employment, travel and fall a year behind peers. Opting for deferral comes with the added risk of a chosen university refusing the request, therby jeapordizing dream places on dream courses (2021 might be far more competitive with overseas students and deferers returning to the fold, a significant demographic upswing and perhaps a tide of unemployed people looking to upskill.) There is a lot to weigh up for applicants.

Our ongoing tracking research with UCAS (“An Applicant’s View” webinar series) shows that many applicants are already thinking seriously about changing their decisions. In Wave 1 (6th April) of this study, 14% of applicants claimed to have already changed their decisions. By Wave 2 (20th April) it had risen to 17% and in the latest wave (1st June) the figure has tipped to over one in five, at 21%.  Our work for London Economics seems to be showing similar results with the potential impact blowing a £750m hole in HE budgets this year.

Serious consideration of deferral is undeniably spiking up.  But before HE providers despair, it is important to remember that at present the potential deferrals have not yet come through and everything is still to play for.  According to UCAS (at the 1st June 2020 webinar), so far in this cycle, 12,660 choices have been deferred.  This compares to 13,020 at the same time last year.  So applicants are not yet pressing the deferral button: they are waiting and seeing.

That is why is vital that HE providers start communicating positively and effectively with applicants and do not sit as passive actors.  But many universities don’t have great form in this department. One might expect the best resourced, largest institutions to have the most effective and creative applicant communications, but our data shows this not to be the case.  As the chart indicates, Russell Group universities, with a few notable exceptions, are not the best at communicating with applicants.  Post-1992s, on the other hand, have had to refine their communications over the years as they’ve been less able to rest on their reputations. Of course, other factors could be at play: Post-1992s are often smaller and more agile with fewer management layers and have more commercially driven marketing teams used to ‘recruiting’ rather than ‘selecting’.  But the case remains, some of our largest and most famous universities could do better with their applicant messaging.

Covid-19 has brought with it a huge threat to the financial stability of universities. Applicants go to university for lots of reasons.  To get a degree (of course), but also to make new friends, build independence, gain new experiences, have fun, etc.  It is not good enough for universities to declare that they are going online for 2020/21 (whether that means totally online, partially, or ‘as little as necessary’) and leave it at that.  More clarity is needed.  What about all other aspects of university life? What practical steps is the university taking to make itself Covid-19-safe while still providing a good student experience? What special measures is the university introducing to make the experience fun and fulfilling? Does the university recognise the risks that applicants are taking and what will they do to address them?  As the chart implies, perhaps it is time that that those with higher esteem (e.g. Russell Group members) but a weaker track record for communicating with applicants take stock, review the existing research, look at who is doing best, learn, and get a bit creative.

The University of Bolton has thought about the problem and stepped up to the mark, announcing that their undergraduate programmes will be taught in a ‘Covid-19 secure’ way, on a ‘fully operational’ campus.  Their planned measures include socially distanced face-to-face tutorials and lab access, a hugely extended timetabling exercise to create smaller, more frequent and safer teaching sessions, supplying temperature scanners at every building entrance, loaning bikes, etc.  They are making a difficult decision much clearer and they are doing it earlier than many of their peers. Of course, they are a lot smaller than most Russell Group universities but from the applicant perspective, these measures are going to make decisions easier to weigh up and precipitous action (deferral) less likely.

And they’re not just using emails and press releases.  They are conveying the message via an animated explainer on YouTube as well as the usual channels.  It’s not difficult to imagine taking this approach even further, running applicant webinars and Q&As, having heads of schools / Deans write personalised, department-centric notes to applicants.  There’s so much that can be done: how much is being done?

Our research shows time and again, both qualitatively and quantitatively, that communicating well – in the right way, at the right time, with the right messages – changes minds.  In the words of one student we recently interviewed:

“The communication from my [chosen universities] has actually changed what my insurance choice will now be, so it has definitely had a positive impact.  The one which was a lot more generic and less personal has negatively impacted my view on studying at that university”.

It’s time all HE providers took stock of their response to Covid-19, considered their comms effectiveness, and start taking remedial action.  Applicants will come.  But HE providers must give them the reason to.

This article was originally published by YouthSight, acquired by Savanta in May 2021. 

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