Empty lecture halls are a communications challenge in the new normal

The news that hundreds of international students are set to return to university in Adelaide in September under a national pilot program aimed at reviving Australia’s higher education sector will release a nationwide nervous sigh of relief for the beleaguered sector.  Under the pilot program 300 students will test whether a return of international students nationally could be managed. The students from South East Asia will fly from Singapore to Australia in early September and be forced to undergo a mandatory supervised quarantine.

COVID has changed every aspect of the international student journey and college value proposition.  The pandemic has accelerated transition to digital everything – potentially redefining education as we know it and changing demand for in-person learning experiences in the future. It is not just international student base that is disrupted and disconnected – local audiences are too. Campus life does not exist the way it used to. Educations fairs, open days, student engagement, graduation ceremonies, industry engagement, alumni programs, fundraising initiatives are all impacted.

And now, increasingly, there is a realisation that the sector may never be restored to how it was. Even when restrictions lift, fear for personal safety will reduce travel, desire to be away from home, and/or drive people to countries deemed to be ‘safer’.

How do universities stay connected and sustain their communities? How do they engage with students? Potential students? How do they assure them of safety? How do they ensure effective teaching and learning? How do they keep up industry and alumni engagement? How do they maintain relationships with donors? How do universities ensure their economic survival?

These are some of the questions we have been grappling with on behalf of our clients.  The pandemic heralds a new era of engagement for universities, requiring a new communications ecosystem.

We are working with leading education brands

  • To help them stay connected to students, alleviate concerns, craft strong online experiences by leveraging deep student insights, new channels and way of engagements – WeChat mini programs, virtual open days and faculty-led online
  • To assure students they are not left behind and deliver reassuring messages on safety and quality education – through VC videos and messages
  • To actively manage the conversations and mitigate issues as they arise
  • To create strong loyalty
  • To appeal for support
  • To celebrate, strengthen and leverage industry partnerships
  • To amplify the voices of champions and case studies

A new communications-led lens on student engagement is helping to strengthen universities through this paradigm shift. 

Beyond this, there is an opportunity around the role universities play in leading robust discussions around business, economic, sociological, and anthropological shifts during and post-pandemic. There is new demand for knowledge and wisdom that sits naturally within university research programmes and faculty experts. Topics like AI, healthcare development, supply chains disruptions and societal mobility etc. This is the time for business schools for example, to lead conversations, carve out their areas of expertise and add value to building the world after the pandemic. Whoever does this well now, sets themselves up apart for the future recruitment of strong student talents, research PHDs and faculty members.

Kylie Taylor

September 2020