Intelligent data can help to build a sense of community

Higher education institutions’ admissions and marketing and communication departments in the United Kingdom, it would be fair to say, have come out of the pandemic with a mix of excitement and exhaustion as they continue to address the ongoing challenge of recruitment and retention of students.

With international student numbers declining rapidly due to restrictions, the fight for United Kingdom students has increased. As a result, many universities are now looking more closely at their local catchment areas, reviewing their approach to student recruitment and engaging with schools to entice students earlier.

During the pandemic, open days in the traditional format disappeared and it was tricky for students to see which university appealed to them most. Additionally, dropout rates increased as advisors could not hold meetings to help prevent a student from leaving.

Face-to-face communications were replaced with technologies like chatbots and digital marketing at the forefront of student communications. However, universities were continually asking, ‘Is what we are delivering now answering the needs of our current and prospective students?’

In today’s environment, are we just trying to recreate the past recruitment strategy and engagement methods without considering how they need to pivot for the future? This question stands as we look to what is next for higher education.

Engagement matters

From the pandemic, we learned that although students seemed comfortable and embraced their online and hybrid learning, engagement and connection to their fellow learners and institution were still very much wanted.

A recent white paper from Anthology showed that 63% of higher education leaders expect increased interactions between students and academic staff in the future. There is also a thirst from students for a more personalised form of communication linked to specific courses moving forward.

However, only 42% of students felt communication would become more personalised, and 37% thought they would interact more with academic staff. So, the question is, how can the gap be closed? One way is to examine the entire student path and then plan their needs from pre-recruitment to after graduation.

Another area to highlight is that communication in the first four weeks of university studies is critical to helping students with their sense of belonging. This time frame will also help students feel confident and help them understand that the university is passionate about every student’s success throughout their time at university and beyond.

For every day the student is at university and every milestone beyond, powerful messages of learner engagement should be at every touchpoint.

Although most students have adapted, many are still seeking reassurance and confidence as to their progress in their institution. As universities continue to adapt in parallel to meet student needs, institutions that consider the entire student experience through the lens of data will emerge as this is necessary for recruitment and retention success.

Personalisation is key

With around 40,000 students, one UK university we work with has proved its resilience by reviewing its approach to student data. They are taking a more holistic approach to producing personalised communications.

They now understand their student data and use it to place a magnifying glass on everything from teaching and graduation information to mental health and well-being. The university also uses it to help tailor support and interventions to help students succeed.

Using this new approach to engagement, utilising multi-channels to tap into their students’ interests and educational journey, they have created an enhanced experience for students. For students, the outcome is that they feel that the institution is invested in them and that their unique needs and preferences are prioritised, increasing the likelihood of retention and reducing dropout levels.

If the university had continued to send out one-size-fits-all emails, they would have created more white noise messages for most of their students. The university uses data resources to their full potential, and its leaders now interrogate our student data to inform much more personalised communications. They can see that communications are now more likely to be opened and have created a stronger connection with students. Blanket communications are no more.

Human touch

Nobody is saying for a minute that digital channels can replace the human touch. But they do provide us with the opportunity to look deeper into the data that we already collect and use it more purposefully and connect with more people to provide a more personalised university experience.

This can bring a sense of belonging, which can be further nurtured through virtual buddying schemes, providing students with one-to-one virtual campus tours with a student ambassador using targeted virtual Q&A events. Data can help create a sense of community in a non-physical environment, a virtual world even.

Technology has opened more doors for universities looking to expand their reach beyond UK borders or their usual geographic boundaries and demographics. So, for example, if we look at digital recruitment and learning approaches, these are now open to those in rural areas or outside the UK, giving universities a new recruitment stream.

Many universities have started to move away from the term ‘blended learning’. However, there is no doubt that digital learning is here to stay and is something students want from their university experience. Therefore, investment in digital platforms and technology systems is crucial for universities’ long-term sustainability.

As evolution progresses, digital communications and teaching environments will be critical drivers for learner enrolment and student retention. By demonstrating to students that we are invested in them and offering them high-value education, we can move forward from the last two years and embrace new positive practices driven by intelligent data.

Louise Thorpe has over 25 years of experience in higher education and was previously head of academic innovation at Sheffield Hallam University and head of learning and teaching strategy and enhancement at the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom. Louise is vice-president and head of client experience, EMEA (Europe, the Middle East and Africa) at edtech company Anthology.