April 2022 saw the debut of Time Higher Education’s new event series for marcomms professionals, Hashtag HigherEd. The conference, hosted by Warwick Business School at the iconic Shard in London, and chaired by our own Mark Sudbury, brought together speakers and delegates from both university and other sectors to discuss issues such as branding, social media, sustainability, recruitment, quality of education and international students.  Speakers – including from W100 Network members the University of Exeter, The University of Sheffield, The University of Manchester, The University of Glasgow, and Glasgow Caledonian University- also highlighted some of their innovative and creative solutions to global higher education challenges through the pandemic, and how they might impact the post-Covid age.

Below we’ve summarised three key takeaways from the event for consideration in future marketing and communications strategies.

Quality Matters

Data from Times Higher Education and Studyportals showed that quality of education remains the most important factor for international students determining their university choice.

As the above graph from the session shows, students use a variety of indicators, including global university and subject-based rankings, to determine where they would like to study. Employability was a close second for international students- showing that universities need to invest in both teaching and careers advice and guidance to appeal to international students. Digital platforms can be used to enhance teaching and employability and transform the quality of education a student receives.

Recruitment is Changing

It is clear that universities faced a huge challenge to recruit international students during COVID-19, and whilst there are some indications that recruitment is now recovering in certain markets, universities and agencies have had to re-think ways of engaging students. Digital innovation has been key to this, with traditional university fairs suspended in many places around the world.

These challenges have allowed a reimagining about student recruitment, embracing it as a holistic journey from first contact to graduation and beyond. Innovative ways of using data are being applied to ensure that students are engaged during key ‘touchpoints’ during their recruitment, and counsellors understand that empathy with students can make the difference between a satisfied and unsatisfied one. This was highlighted by Emily Tofield, Director of Communications, Marketing and Advancement at University of Sussex, who believes that  the pandemic highlighted the importance of prioritising kindness in marketing and brand campaigns, commenting that “Hope is not enough” when communicating with current or prospective students.

Hashtag higher Ed: Hope is not enough

Student Challenges and Futures

If empathy has become a byword for successful engagement with prospective students, it is also recognised that international students since the COVID-19 pandemic face a series of issues such as isolation, disconnection from their country peers, unfamiliar online learning environments, and a broader sense of uncertainty.

Examples of universities working together with in-country counsellors to support their students’ well-being shared at the conference included sending care packages and ensuring that there was always someone there to talk to. Whilst the university experience- from application to teaching- is increasingly digital- a key take away was that students still prefer the ‘personal’ touch.

Hashtag Higher Ed showed a sector getting enthusiastically back on its feet after the COVID-19 pandemic, embracing a new reality of digital disruption and heightened student expectations. Best practice from universities highlighted the importance of inter-departmental communication between those in recruitment and those in marketing; the importance of truly listening to the needs of your students, and how data can support, but never replace, the role of professionals, in improving outcomes in higher education.

Times Higher Education is exploring the potential for similar events in other countries. There will also be marcomms content at the forthcoming series of THE Campus Live events around the world: click here for more details