If there wasn’t already an impetus for getting more effective and more efficient, the pandemic has certainly provided one.  Here, Joel Arber and Nathalie Mortimer cut through the COVID noise and make the case for transformation today.

At the beginning of this academic year we were already talking about a perfect storm in higher education:

  • The demographic nadir of 18 year olds
  • Increased competition for students at home and abroad
  • The new regulator
  • The impact of Brexit, and so on

Coming into the year, 61% of universities reported a financial deficit. This was already leading to efficiency measures across the sector and at SUMS we were working with universities to make £20m operating savings.

And then COVID hit.

If there wasn’t already an impetus for getting more effective and more efficient, the pandemic has certainly provided one.

UK HE operates in a global market. Our universities have been reliant on international student income increasingly over recent decades, with some of SUMS’ own member universities reliant on international student fees for as much as 30% of their total income.

COVID has thrown the old-world order up in the air. China is pointing at Australia and calling it an overtly racist environment for Chinese students. The US is struggling with its COVID response, flip-flopping over whether students learning 100% online (thanks to the pandemic) have the right to be in the country. And China itself, along with some other Asian nations, is starting to compete more seriously in the international student recruitment market.

In the more immediate term, the latest UCAS figures show an encouraging picture. But we have to expect this to change. The longer social distancing restrictions and other measures remain in place, the more likely it is we’ll see deferrals. New first years will be reluctant to start their university lives with a second-rate experience – in or out of the classroom.

So be prepared for Clearing to be brutal. You’ll need to work harder than ever to reassure supposedly committed students. And be prepared to fight tooth and nail for every new prospect in the pool. Everyone will be reaching into their reserve lists, relaxing tariffs to maintain income. This won’t just impact the lower ranked universities – but the less-well prepared. Having good student journey technology helping your efforts in this space will make a massive difference.

And that digital infrastructure is only going to be more important going forwards. The demographic trajectory points to an additional 50,000 UK students a year by 2030. Similarly, a major study by HolonIQ points to an increase from 5 million to 7 million international students globally in the same timeframe.

So now, more than ever, is the time to make sure your processes, systems and your people are up to the challenge.

Even before COVID, we were seeing changes in terms of expectations and engagement across the student journey. There may be an expected increase in student numbers over the coming years but these are a different generation of students and as Data HE notes, “benefiting from this surge is not a right or entitlement.”

Generation Z and Gen Alpha have very different attributes and expectations from their predecessors. The social networks this generation will engage with are unlikely to have been developed yet, and the Gen Alpha familiarity with Amazon is something the rest of the world should be playing close attention to.

With over half of children talking to Alexa already, comfort with voice interaction is only going to get stronger.

It’s hard to predict how AI and Gen Alpha will interact when it comes to education, but it’s likely they will benchmark their customer experiences by the best experience they’ve had regardless of industry.  At a top level this will be influencing their mindset, their behaviour and their attitudes towards customer experience as well as how they might engage with you.

But we also need to acknowledge that generational cohorts are only part of the picture and we cannot simply design our student journeys based on top level generational insight.

Providing an industry-leading customer experience requires marketers to focus on the individual and provide a truly personalised experience, regardless of the channel being used to communicate.

While generational research gives an indication of what groups might desire when it comes to customer experience, building journeys based on this data will not provide the granularity required to craft deep connections with your prospective students.

Therefore, it is vital to put into place an intelligent customer engagement platform that leverages the data and content your organisation has gathered to provide a truly individualised experience for every student. As one senior leader recently noted to us, “if anything, the pandemic has served to highlight the importance of strategic capability in a complex environment. Connecting digitally with our audiences and digital agility has never been more valuable.” ​

Join us for our upcoming webinars (in collaboration with Microsoft) where we will share practical solutions to enable your organisation to maximise future growth whilst developing and deploying effective marketing strategy to support your ambitions.

Please view the full video recording for webinar 1, Cutting through the COVID noise: the need for transformation today, here. 

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