Posted on 21 Apr 2020 at 14:26 by Vicky Lewis
Within the higher education sector (and beyond), we’re starting to read some pieces advising us where to focus our efforts when the coronavirus dust settles, but it’s difficult to get the timing right. Some people may be tuned into forward planning, while others are still in fire-fighting mode.
Simon Anholt, founder of The Good Country Index (which measures what each country contributes to the greater good of humanity), has used Twitter to initiate a new hashtag: #staychanged. The idea is to highlight those positive (often kinder, greener) behaviours that the pandemic has triggered, which we would like to hold on to after it is over.
This blog reflects on institutional behaviours (within UK HE) that we’re seeing now, which are essential during the current crisis and will continue to be valuable if they can be maintained afterwards.
In each case, I look at how the changed behaviour plays out in the context of international student recruitment.
I’ve selected five changes for the better. (There are doubtless many more.)
International Offices and colleagues with responsibility for enquiry-handling, CRM and Admissions are having to focus more closely than ever on the service offered to prospective international students.
Regular updates help to reassure prospective students; and simply reaching out makes them feel valued. Recent surveys indicate that the vast majority expect a minimum of weekly communications from their chosen HEI at the current time.
Swift responses to the ‘make or break’ questions (often around cost, funding options, flexibility, logistics and healthcare arrangements) can make the difference between an applicant pressing on with their plans to join your university or abandoning them.
Although it is critical to get the communications right during a time of crisis, the same principles remain valid during good times too: be proactive, treat people as individuals, take their concerns seriously, maintain regular and clear communication (via their preferred channels) and get the tone right.
Staff in International Offices - and those in Faculties and Professional Services who contribute to international student recruitment - are having to switch from face-to-face recruitment events and activities to remote ones. This means getting up to speed with virtual open days, virtual recruitment fairs, webinars, live streaming and more.
Activities which had previously been ancillary are now taking centre stage. Having to focus energy and effort on delivering these effectively will put HEIs in a much better position to use them as a more integrated part of the international marketing and recruitment effort in future years. If they are seen to be effective, they may start to play a more prominent role, reducing the need to rack up quite as many air miles.
UniQuest has compiled a useful list of 10 steps for hosting a digital student recruitment event that converts.
HEIs are taking scenario planning more seriously than ever before. International student number planning, which may sometimes in the past have been reduced to ‘last year plus a bit’, is a particular challenge. The impact of different levels of decline in new entrants (and returning students) for 2020/21 and beyond is being carefully modelled.
This is perhaps triggering a new-found respect for the data, intelligence and insights that should always inform planning. In uncertain times, you latch on to what you do know: scrutinising application and enrolment trends, the impact of past crises on international student recruitment, the market context in individual countries of interest etc.
Companies like Data HE have redirected their analysis expertise to help universities scenario plan for student recruitment.
It is important to ensure that the horizon scanning, market intelligence gathering and data analysis that is currently proving so useful is built into future planning processes in a rigorous way.
The larger UK universities, particularly the long-established ones, tend not to be very nimble when it comes to decision making. Papers need to go to committees (which may not meet very often), debate ensues, further research is required, amendments are made and, eventually, change may happen. While these checks and balances are often essential, they may sometimes be used as an excuse for inaction (or delayed action).
The Covid-19 crisis has changed all that. One International Director told me how, faced with the urgent need to add an alternative English language test to the institution’s list of acceptable qualifications, it was possible to get a decision fast-tracked via a virtual sub-committee in a matter of days, rather than waiting months for the normal approval process to take its course.
It would make such a difference if some of the streamlined processes and decision making that we’re seeing at the moment could be adopted as standard practice.
With everyone working remotely and juggling work commitments with domestic obligations, there is of necessity a much greater focus on outputs rather than inputs. This is a more trusting way of working, which tends to increase motivation.
International Office teams are used to people working remotely. However, having all staff distributed all of the time could pave the way for a new type of International Office operation: one designed so that physical distance is no barrier to effective teamwork.
Before the spread of coronavirus, there were already moves in some universities to base a higher proportion of staff in the region for which they are responsible. This may take the form of global hubs or centres, whose staff oversee a range of international activities (including, for example, student recruitment, partner engagement, alumni relations) in their region.
It reflects a desire to reduce long-haul travel (and therefore the institution’s carbon footprint) and to move beyond a colonialist model of international engagement where in-country operations are firmly directed from the UK. The benefits include market-informed decision-making and greater agility. Prerequisites for success include the need for all staff, wherever they are based, to feel part of a cohesive team; and the need for high levels of mutual trust.
It would be heartening if the experience of coronavirus-driven remote working helps to build those prerequisites: forging stronger, more trusting and mutually supportive teams whose effectiveness is not diminished by being widely distributed.
We are creatures of habit and, however much we say ‘things have to change’, it would be easy to fall back into a rut.
The HEIs that thrive post-crisis will be those that integrate their learnings into new ways of working, rather than those that seek to return to how things used to be.
In this blog, I selected five areas – all seen through the lens of international student recruitment – which I believe would benefit if we hold on to some of the changes that have been thrust on us by Covid-19.
Which changes in your own working context would you like to ‘stay changed’?