Vicky Hayhurst08/10/2020

Revolution Viewing recently commissioned another in-depth qualitative study with prospective university students. The main purpose of this primary research piece was to inform the design and build of our new virtual experience 2.0 which I mentioned in my last blog. However, a section of the study was devoted to gaining insights into the effects of Covid-19 on the student recruitment cycle and I wanted to share some of these insights with you.

We conducted online focus groups with over 60 students in years 12 and 13 across the UK who were currently researching universities and intending to enrol this year or next. As you would expect, it’s not the most rosy of pictures. Then again, it would be strange if a disruptive and dangerous global pandemic was having a positive impact on teenagers! But the findings do provide a fantastic opportunity for HE providers to better understand the thoughts and fears of their prospective students and address these.

Comments from prospective students focused on some key areas:
Virtual learning
Value for money
Student experience
Career/job prospects
Support needs

Virtual learning

Students expressed concern that virtual learning and online teaching would not be of the standard they were expecting from in-person teaching. Earlier research studies we’ve seen on this were more encouraging. When it seemed as though only a term of remote learning was required, students were more accepting of this [source: Quacquerelli Symonds webinar March 2020 “Responding to coronavirus: Initial QS survey insights from students and universities”]. However, the impression we got from students in our discussion groups was that as a long-term prospect, or one with no time limit, this would be unappealing.

“Covid has made me feel quite uneasy about university due to online classes and not getting the full learning experience in online classes unlike physical classes.”

Online learning is an unappealing long-term prospect for many students (Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash)

Opportunity

Some students’ reticence about online learning is likely related to fear or ignorance of the unknown. There are some examples of remote learning that are famously successful (here’s looking at you, the OU). So there is a chance for universities to ensure that their virtual teaching is as good as it can be, and then tell people about it. Many students are doing well this term, they are accessing classes and their studies have started. If you know that online teaching is working well for a particular group of students at your university, why not have them vlog about it? They’ve got a lot of time on their hands after all! Vlogging is a great way to communicate authentically with prospective students and we have products to help you with this.

This vlog shows an actual ‘day in the life’ of a student. It’s authentic and interesting, and it doesn’t just paint a perfect picture of life at Leeds Beckett. I doubt many students want to hear they’ll be up at 06:30am! A vlog acknowledging the negative effects of the Coronavirus restrictions and at the same time showing a student making the best of it, and not regretting attending university in spite of the lockdown, would be a powerful marketing asset.

Value for money

As you will all know, many students became more like consumers and more money-savvy when tuition fees rose in 2012. Our research showed that this trend is now more prevalent. The lockdown restrictions are leading students to question whether they are receiving value for money from universities.

“For me university costs a lot of money. The fees I will be paying are unjustifiable if I have to take online lessons.”

“I feel like Covid-19 may affect the way in which my education is delivered e.g. online lectures. The quality of this may not be the same and I won’t be comfortable paying full price if this is the case. “

Opportunity

Students mainly questioned value for money in relation to the online learning experience. There seems to be a perception that if they are not taught in person, they will not be learning in the same way. Here’s a post I recently saw on LinkedIn exploring the benefits of virtual events. It’s just a brief comment but challenges assumptions about the approach from physical to virtual. There’s an opportunity here for universities to do similar and explore the benefits of online learning. And regarding the money, could you run a feature on some leading academics? This would be a chance to demonstrate a lecturer’s personal achievements in their subject area and how well-qualified your staff are. This is particularly relevant for business or humanities students who don’t expect specialist facilities or materials. Part of students’ tuition fees are paying for access to experts, whether this be online or otherwise.

Part of students’ tuition fees goes towards paying towards experts in their field, who can explain complicated concepts and ideas, and facilitate discussion. At the moment, those experts are mostly delivering online tuition – this doesn’t reduce the value of their contribution.

Student experience

Unsurprisingly, students reported concerns about the impact of lockdown restrictions on their social life and activities.

“One of the main parts of university is being able to be social and meet new people and socialise but due to the pandemic – most of the work will be online and freshers week for unis this year has also been cancelled. This could be a major put off for many students this year who would miss majorly on the extracurricular clubs and social events.”

Opportunity

While prospective student concerns are valid, many are no more likely to be impeded socially at university than they are at home. There has been a lot of negative press in the last month regarding the start of university but the reality is that many thousands of freshers are doing just fine. They are making friends in their halls and are socialising in their flats. Many are still able to go to pubs and bars (following social distancing). Shops, cafes, restaurants are all still open. Maybe it’s worth reminding prospective students about this, and sharing stories of current students who are enjoying their time at university in spite of everything.

Career/job prospects

The prospective students that we spoke to raised a lot of concerns about the future and their job prospects. They clearly wanted the financial investment of studying for a degree to pay off in future opportunities. When we asked them what they might do instead, we got some mixed responses (and some non-responses). Students mentioned the possibility of apprenticeships or taking a gap year.

“I’m debating whether Universities will be the same due to COVID-19 and its drastic effect and whether in the long run for like job opportunities how it will potentially affect me in the future.”

“COVID-19 has made me rethink going to university because I don’t think I will be able to get a job after and will be in debt.”

Opportunity

I think the problem here for students is that they are a bit lost. Aren’t we all! Such uncertainty about the future is likely to lead to doubts. Addressing them head-on is probably a good idea. Publicising information like percentage graduates in employment might help. And information about your relationships with local businesses, the value of a ‘year in industry’ and, ultimately, the value of a degree. In an increasingly competitive jobs market, surely being well-qualified will be an advantage? And at some point, we will emerge from the pandemic. At that point, isn’t it better to have a degree and be raring to go rather than take that as your cue to start applying for one?

Students are struggling with the choices available to them. While the general sense is that they still want a career, they are considering other ways to start this, for example apprenticeships.

Support needs

The year 12 and 13 students that we spoke to were concerned about Covid. This is probably obvious! What I mean is that, without prompting, they raised concerns about Covid and how universities would handle that. One of the key needs they expressed was wanting on-site Covid testing at universities.

“Universities should definitely have Covid testing on site for students and that will be a big factor [for me] when deciding on a university.”

“We should be told what the universities plan to do in the event of a lock down, e.g. online learning – what platforms, what we will need for these online lessons, will it follow same time frame as existing lectures – etc.”

“Universities should be putting in place plans for if a student has to quarantine so that it is not confusing for anyone when they are stuck indoors and can continue learning. I will be taking this into account when picking my university depending on how the Covid situation develops.”

The graph shows the approximate percentage of student comments relating to each of these Covid-19 support needs.

Opportunity

The uncertainty of the pandemic and restrictions make it difficult to plan. However, prospective students are telling us loud and clear that they’d like to see a plan! Their needs are also reasonably basic. Most of their comments show that they want quality learning, in a safe environment. Universities who are proactive in demonstrating that they will provide this will likely win some prospective students around. We can hope that things will be looking brighter by the time first-year undergraduates are joining in 2021, but the reality is that those same undergrads will be applying for university now and in the coming months. Even if you hope not to be following through with your Covid contingency planning by then, it’s probably worth having some ideas in place anyway. From what we’ve seen, your prospective students would like to hear about them.

Salford have done a particularly good job in communicating their on-campus Covid plans to students. This is highlighted in these two videos Revolution Viewing produced for them: one for explaining how the university was dealing with concerns and setting out their plan; and the other to show the changes made on campus as a result. They also did slightly different versions of these for returning students and staff.

What next?

This piece of research, conducted with the help of Cosmos, provided us with loads of information. The Covid-related comments gave us some understanding into the turmoil that young people are facing this year and shows the opportunities for universities in addressing these worries. The Covid comments also accounted for only four pages of the 37-page report! In my July blog on Virtual Open Days I promised that we would share the results of our primary research with you. We’ll continue to publish more insights in the coming months. Join our mailing list to be the first to hear about them. If you are keen for more straight away, then a good place to go next would be the Stori blog on the crucial metric that universities should be watching right now. It’s a really interesting analysis on why league tables and other traditional metrics aren’t cutting it right now, and where universities should be looking instead.

We regularly conduct research with prospective students. Be among the first to gain access to our insights and findings.