The way that higher education institutions communicate with their current students is irrevocably altered forever thanks to the pandemic. Out of the flames that have destroyed ‘business as usual’ comes the phoenix of smarter, better, more astute provider-to-student communications.
The pre-2020 house style for HEIs informing (and – only occasionally – engaging with) students about the latest announcements, news and opportunities was very much a “tell all” approach – most commonly via a weekly email bulletin, all-student emails, pithy promotional posts in various social media accounts, and drop-in text on VLE platform alerts.
Now, thanks to the challenges of the last two years, HEIs have thought longer and harder about the resourcing, efforts and methods that they use to not only communicate to their students but to really listen to student needs, to identify their own communications preferences, and (ultimately) to adapt to what communications works best for the students.
In many bigger institutions we’re now seeing larger student communication teams (either in a central marketing and communications operation or in student services) rather than just one role (or more commonly the margins of time of one role) devoted to student communications.
We’re seeing more cross-institutional networks being established and being used to source, plan and co-ordinate communications across different sub-sets of students, across academic departments and at different milestones of the annual academic cycle.
We’re seeing a greater commonality of how students are communicated with across ‘the journey’: during the recruitment phase, during their course, and when they graduate and move through their careers. This journey, more often than not, now involves use of rich, vibrant 3D forms of multimedia content rather than relying on dry, email-led and text-based approaches.
We’re also seeing a fundamental shift in the variety of channels that are being employed in order to meet the different communication intentions and objectives – so different channels are now allocated for, say, sharing news, for alerting to incidents and risks, or for updating on teaching & learning needs. The purpose of the communication now has an appropriate channel.
A further (and important) development is the emergence of student-to-student communications for strengthening trust and credibility in student communications. Some HEIs now employ student interns to help to design and deliver student communications. This is built on the hugely successful foundations created by the pre-entry online buddying platforms – which have embedded peer to peer engagement and guidance into the fabric of HEIs.
As we continue to evolve into face-to-face, in-person and on-campus student life, we should be grateful that one of the best outcomes from the COVID-19 disruption is that we will have better informed students, a much broader set of channels and tailored ways of engaging with students, and therefore: a greater sense of belonging, higher levels of student satisfaction, and a far richer student experience. This won’t be reflected in the NSS of 2022 – but hopefully by NSS 2024?
Justin Shaw is Chief Higher Education Consultant at Communications Management. He and fellow IHE corporate partner Michael Lavery of Brand & Reputation deliver a Students First student engagement and communications review programme for HEIs and they speak frequently at the annual CASE Europe Student Communications Conference.
- On 25th May 2022