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Insight
Jul 9, 2021

The university of tomorrow: how to prepare for the post-Covid challenge

2
minute read
It's an uncertain time for the Higher Education (HE) sector and despite universities’ admirable response to Covid-19, the pandemic has left its mark on student retention and recruitment. UNRVLD Business Director, Amy Tootell, examines how offering students the right digital experience can help join up their services. 

The HE sector is looking in all directions to stem the leak and restore confidence in the overall university offering. At UNRVLD we look at ways that technology can intervene and improve the student experience for our award-winning university clients including Leeds Beckett, Essex, Portsmouth and Birmingham. We explore what best practice can help them to attract, enrol and retain students through engaging digital services; as well as how best to compete and keep up with the rapid change of student expectations.

Attracting – “Consistency is key”

A recent report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies, stated that after the pandemic 13 universities could end up with ‘negative reserves’ and would be at risk of insolvency without a bailout. With one of the biggest losses being likely to stem from falls in international student enrolments, ensuring that a premium experience is delivered across universities’ entire digital estates in order to maximise recruitment is of the highest priority. The scale of university websites and the multitude of audiences that they need to cater for makes designing a consistent experience that engages student prospects across the entire site a challenge. A challenge, but not an impossibility.

Decompressing siloed experiences at scale

Due to their sheer scale, university website projects are often tackled in siloes – the choice of the CRM might be made separately to theCMS, student portal and booking engine, rather than approached from a joined-up perspective, where each department and stakeholder group acts as one, aligned to an overall strategy.

By allocating budget to a larger framework rather than tackling specific areas of the site bit by bit, universities can begin to reap a better return on their investment. Across a larger framework, forward-viewing universities are becoming more focused on creating a powerful, scalable and flexible design system using a component-based approach that can, in time, b eapplied to all areas of the site.

Similar levels of improvement can then be applied to ‘deeper level’ pages, such as research sections, as to more core locations in the student journey, such as search. Ultimately, delivering a consistent design experience across the entire site. This approach builds a better framework to enable internal teams to create richer experiences for everyone, retaining engagement during each site interaction.

Enrolling – “Get to know your students, really know them”

The disjointed student experience created by a siloed approach not only hinders the recruitment process but also infringes upon the enrolment process. Siloed internal systems often result in student data captured during the recruitment process being communicated inefficiently or lost entirely once a student is physically enrolled. This is a serious cause for concern given the enrichment potential that this data can have on the student experience.

A joined-up approach to internal technology systems can rectify this, creating a single view of the student throughout their university life. In turn, this facilitates a seamless process from enquiry to application and through to enrolment.

For a start, this ‘single view’ can be achieved making sure that the CRM is completely joined up with a strong taxonomy and tagging system to ensure that data is used correctly. With a connected system, universities can begin to catch bits of student behaviour from the website and tailor a ‘logged in’ student experience based on what is already known about them from past interactions. The whole journey of the student can then be tracked and adapted, exciting the student throughout the enrolment process with opportunities at university that may interest them. The more general, broad website that caters for is elevated to something that is tailored; adapting, and changing with the individual throughout the process.

Retaining – predicting and identifying trends 

Even post-enrolment, universities are faced with an increased number of student drop-outs. The most recent data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA )indicates that, on average, 6.4% of undergraduate students in the UK withdraw from their course. In an analysis of these official figures, PA Media found that two-thirds of universities and colleges had seen an increase in student dropouts in the last five years, resulting in the sector looking in all directions to stem the leak. The complexity surrounding the issue of student retention is evident in the fact that there is considerable diversity among those institutions with the lowest and highest non-continuation rates. The issue of student retention, it seems, can be faced by all. However, there are digital solutions on offer to aid universities in highlighting ‘at-risk’ students and better preventing future fall-out.

A localised experience

At university, students identify with the small microcosm within which they operate, making the student experience an extremely localised one. This has the potential to benefit universities. Technology can be used to create a customised onboarding programme based on the data that is already known about a student to enhance their experience. During an often-lonely time for a student, universities can personalise their experience, introducing the student to relevant schools and societies that may enrich their university life. Equally, if students fail to interact with the opportunities on offer or begin to engage less, there is technology available to automate responses and prompts on their portals that encourage students to seek help and guidance. The system can intervene and flag the need for manual intervention in the hopes of identifying a struggling student and helping before it is too late, predicting and identifying trends to aid student retention.

Competing – keeping up with student expectations

We have been forced to move at pace because of the pandemic, but will we be able to sustain this hybrid mode of working after a partial return to the classroom? Maintaining a consistent experience alongside hybrid dual delivery will be tough. Investment into resources enabling that to happen must be applied to all areas of the university and above all be embedded into their overall digital strategy. Communication is key in ensuring that the return to the physical environment of university is a success. Universities can no longer work in a siloed approach and technology must be procured and implemented with all areas of the university in mind. A customer-first approach to planning that uses technology to facilitate thinking is a must. With a joined-up strategy, universities can drive business efficiencies, anticipate changes and above all, create a better experience for their students.

Adopting an agile mindset

These days, students desire more than a well-taught degree. Universities therefore require an agile mindset and a willingness to embrace innovation in order to keep pace with student expectations. With technology rapidly evolving, there is an opportunity to reshape the university experience around a data first, single view of a student. While universities are often thought to react and implement change slowly, the pandemic has instead proven that under external pressures, internal teams can implement new systems, agile ways of working, and new processes quickly and to the benefit of the organisation. Competing in the marketplace should be seen, too, as a pressure to be responded to with transformational models. In an increasingly tough and competitive market, this is how universities can cost-effectively and efficiently attract and retain the right talent.

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