As the UK faces yet another strict lockdown for the month ahead, it’s more important than ever for institutions to make prospective and current students feel more connected through personalised contact, conversation and content that answers their pressing questions. We reached out to members of our Whatuni Student Advisory Board (SAB) to get their insights on how universities can improve the way they communicate with students, how open days can be brought up to date, the role of student reviews and what they look for on student-facing websites, such as Whatuni.
Sharing meaningful student content
Dylan Couperthwaite who studies Politics at Lancaster University believes that the most valuable content universities can share during the pandemic is anything pertaining to online learning. He says: “For someone like me who is used to working with a clear timetable, content with tips and advice on how to get into and maintain a routine and how to make the most of the new normal is sorely needed right now.”
Now more than ever, students are scrutinising university content for answers on everything from whether they’ll be returning to in-person lectures to how institutions are providing financial assistance. Institutions should ensure that content is regularly updated and relevant to student needs.
Unsurprisingly, most of the SAB members we interviewed confirmed that COVID-related content is what they’re mostly looking for when browsing university websites.
First year student Amelia Martin, who is studying English Literature at the University of Chichester, says that she’s most interested in COVID-19 updates specifically linked to her university and how it affects her student life experience.
Responding to how COVID is handled, Mark Barrow - currently completing his MPhil in Politics and International Studies at Cambridge University - believes that many students are interested in content that allows them to compare the actions taken by their universities to those of other universities. He says: “Students want to see whether university actions are the exception or the norm, around matters such as students having to isolate. Cross-university comparisons also tie into other content, such as accommodation. For international students, they’d want to see if international students at other institutions are returning to their native countries earlier than planned or not returning at all. I also think they'd be interested in seeing whether the financial and personal support at their university is standard practice across the sector.”
Messaging to reassure students
A key focus for university communications departments at the moment is to make students feel safe and reassured about their study experiences. Dylan finds it particularly reassuring to not feel pressurised into attending in-person lectures. He says, “A few of my seminars have been scheduled to be in person, but the lecturers have made it clear that the content will be available online if we do not feel safe attending in person. As a commuting student, this respect for people not wanting to travel in the current climate has been hugely appreciated.”
For Mark, regular, meaningful and, most importantly, transparent updates from his university are crucial. “Universities can do more to be transparent regarding contingency and scenario planning. It can be very reassuring for students to hear what future possibilities are around the pandemic. For example, if universities are planning to impose more stringent measures (such as moving all non-essential teaching online), then explicitly stating these measures is helpful. This is a much better way forward than communicating messages once events start to unfold. Explicit communications around what universities are doing to support students academically and financially are also vital. Although this information is often on university websites, frequent reminders can be more reassuring than universities often seem to realise.”
The evolution of open days
A challenge for institutions is how to successfully transfer the in-person open day to online, while keeping it as enticing for prospective students. Our research shows that on Whatuni.com, open day clicks have dropped significantly from 4.04% to 2.84% of overall CTAs over the last year. Students can find similar information on university websites to what they see on virtual open days. We posed the question to our SAB members to see what universities can do to make virtual open days more appealing.
Dylan believes that a key element is introducing live chats with current students. He says, “An open day is mainly an opportunity to get a feel for the atmosphere of a university. You can learn all about how good their results are and how fantastic their facilities are from going online; it’s much harder to get a feel for the atmosphere over the internet! Talking to current students would be an amazing way of getting at least some semblance of how the students themselves feel about their university.”
Amelia adds that live talks from lecturers and more detailed focus on specific courses would entice her to sign up to a virtual open day.
In a similar vein to Dylan, Mark also believes that truthful accounts by current students is the way forward. He says, “I think objective information would make all the difference. University websites and open days are essentially a chance for universities to market themselves – this means that they often don’t provide balanced and unbiased information They can't all be the best at everything! Virtual open days should be about providing objective information, including honest opinions provided by current students.”
Why students like Whatuni
University-related content is often featured on popular student websites, such as Whatuni. We asked our SAB members for their insights on what content works well on Whatuni.
Dylan said that the blend between information from the various universities (e.g. such as prospectuses) coupled with more generic elements such as advice articles and blog posts work particularly well. He also commented on how user-friendly Whatuni was with respective content sections and how it is easy to navigate with high-quality content. He added that he’d like to see blog posts and articles given more prominence on the site.
Mark liked the fact that Whatuni showcased the most prominent and relevant information of each university. He says, “By focusing on accommodation, job prospects, student support and so on, people can get information that will be of real use to them when deciding which university to apply to. It’s also very good at providing comparative information regarding courses and virtual events/open days, rather than focusing on specific examples. The inclusion of reviews by current students on the site makes the information objective and not reliant on a university’s marketing material. I also appreciate how Whatuni provides comprehensive information on the most topical issues, particularly the current Covid-19 pandemic.”
The role of the student review
While institutions may be more nervous than usual to promote student reviews due to student experiences potentially dampened by the pandemic, they still play a very important role. In fact, the way an institution handles the pandemic may very well lead to positive student reviews.
Dylan believes that reviews give prospective students a full view of what a university is like, allowing prospective students to weigh up the positives and the negatives to come to a sound decision about where to study. He adds: “A university will always be inclined to oversell itself and gloss over some aspects that might not reflect as well on them. I therefore trust student reviews to be more honest than a university’s marketing department.”
Mark agrees: “Student reviews are very important, providing they are honest and objective. Many universities employ student ambassadors, who are strongly advised to only provide positive information about the university to prospective students, so these types of reviews can often be unhelpful. However, if reviews can be provided without this degree of censorship, then prospective students can benefit from truly honest and transparent information.”
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