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Research shows seismic effect of Covid-19 on student recruitment

MORE than 80 per cent of universities have made a wholesale switch to online recruitment due to the Covid-19 pandemic, new figures suggest.


A white paper published today by edtech company, The Access Platform (TAP), reveals a mercurial rise in digital engagement levels, much of it coming from erstwhile champions of more traditional methods of attracting new students.


The paper, entitled ‘Student recruitment post Covid-19. Is virtual recruitment here to stay?’ also explores the exponential increase in virtual open days, the effect of Covid-19 on international student recruitment and what the ‘new normal’ might look like.

Nik Higgins

Nik Higgins TAP’s Chief Strategy Officer and Co-founder, said: “It’s fascinating to see what the shift has been, as well as how quickly the sector has reacted and adapted.

“In one fell swoop, the Covid-19 pandemic completely changed how higher education institutions around the world have to approach student recruitment.


“With travel restricted, recruitment fairs cancelled, and staff forced to stay at home, almost every traditional recruitment channel was suddenly no longer an option 


“We’re spoiled for choice when it comes to technologies allowing prospective students to have conversations with staff, academics and, of course, current students. Those questions are always a vital part of the recruitment cycle and, crucially, they can still take place online - and still be just as powerful and influential.


“This has been online recruitment’s moment to shine - and it has performed admirably.”


Statistics based on TAP’s survey reveal the effect of the pandemic has been huge; 82 per cent of respondents said that their recruitment was being done ‘entirely online’, while for the remaining 18 per cent it was now an equal split of virtual and traditional methods.


TAP is a peer recruitment platform which allows prospective students to connect with ambassadors of universities on their shortlist, so they can ask questions about campus, course and social life.


Their own statistics show that in the six months from October 2019, the platform saw an increase of more than 2,000 per cent in the number of new accounts created by prospective students, across all partners.


In the month of May 2020, TAP recorded a four-fold increase in the number of messages sent through the platform - that's conversations between prospective students and either staff or student Ambassadors. Elements of the white paper were discussed at a virtual international conference of higher education experts last week.


Among the speakers was Jo Thompson, senior UK Student Recruitment Officer at the University of Sheffield.


Reflecting on the way in which she and her team had responded to covid, she said: “There was definitely a feeling of shock and initial uncertainty, but there really was no time to dwell because of what we needed to achieve in a short space of time. 


“We adjusted fairly quickly and the initial discomfort with online meetings soon dissipated and become the norm. As time goes on, the challenge becomes greater as we plan to build in virtual communication at every level and stage of our student recruitment. 


“Student recruitment hasn’t changed a lot during my 17 years of working in this area. Recent events have given us a big wake up call and will leave a huge legacy on the way we deliver our activities. We will still continue with traditional events but will continue to embrace our new way of delivering activities. Now feels like an exciting time to be working in student recruitment.”


The white paper reveals virtual open days held by a number of universities attracted hundreds of students from the UK and more than 30 overseas territories. Between them, they generated thousands of interactions. Case studies from the Universities of Bolton, Sunderland and Sheffield are included in the paper to give a deeper insight into how the events worked.


Three-quarters of survey respondents - 73 per cent - said they had run a virtual open day since the start of the pandemic, with two-thirds going on to say these events had been successful; 38 per cent said they were ‘very successful’ while a further 25 per cent said they were ‘somewhat successful’.


Elissa Newall from global higher education industry experts, Edified, said of the rapidly changing HE environment: “Each news story brought more ‘guestimations’ of how long lockdown and border closures would last. 


“In the early days, there were more questions than answers so finding a feeling of certainty was difficult. Eventually, it became clear that this was not going to be over quickly, so I started looking at longer term planning and new segments to work with.


“Universities now know they can change things quickly if they need to.  I hope the days of hearing “that will take months or years to implement” are over for good.  Even administrators have learned they can be creative in finding solutions.”


Much of last week’s global conference revolved around the theme of international recruitment and the effects of Covid-19 on universities’ future prospects of attracting overseas students. 


That was also a theme in the pre conference survey, which found that 91 per cent of participants were concerned about the effects of the pandemic on their international recruitment efforts.


Of those, 55 per cent said they were worried that continued travel restrictions will cause international students to either change their plans or stay at home. The other 36 per cent said their worry was that international students would look to other countries that are perceived to have handled the pandemic better.


Jimmy Hong, Assistant Director of Recruitment Operations for INTO University Partnership was a speaker at the conference.


He said: “ My initial thought [when the extent of the pandemic became clear] was that international student mobility will be heavily impacted, but at the same time it will allow universities to reflect on current practices and evolve with the challenging times. The demand for higher education has not disappeared nor will it disappear, but it has accelerated other opportunities.


“Covid-19 will be known in history as a disruptive pandemic that allowed universities to evolve and challenged the status quo of traditional student recruitment. Meanwhile, it will create a more blended ecosystem of both traditional and digital student recruitment.”


So, what will the student recruitment landscape look like post Covid-19? What will the ‘new normal’ be for recruitment professionals across the sector, around the world?


Clearly, there are lots of issues to think about and things might well change over the middle few months of 2020 - how long will courses be delivered online? What will social distancing look like on campus? What will happen to year abroad schemes? Should institutions be worried about any repercussions from not being able to offer the courses that they’ve been advertising previously?


In exploring the new normal, the white paper looks at some of the stark Covid-induced realities.


A recent survey from the University and College Union in the UK found that one in five students said they would not enrol in the next academic year if classes were delivered online and other activities curtailed, which could cost the sector £763m in lost tuition fees and teaching grants.


And while some universities have started to reveal their plans for 2020/21 - for example, the University of Cambridge won’t be delivering in-person lectures until Autumn 2021 - many details are still being worked out around the world.

Said Nik: “One thing we are confident will be part of the new normal is the profile and importance of online recruitment methods. As we’ve already said, online recruitment has really stepped up to the mark during this pandemic and, now it’s here, it’s staying.


“This is something backed up by the final part of our survey; while no-one envisages a new normal where recruitment is done entirely online, 100 per cent of our survey participants said the new normal would be a recruitment landscape where online solutions have much more prominence and are mixed with a return of some traditional/in-person activities.

“One thing that Covid-19 hasn’t changed about student recruitment is the enormity of the decision around where to study. It’s still huge - still likely to be the biggest decision any prospective student has had to make in their lives so far.


“The new normal for student recruitment will be challenging, undoubtedly, but there’s also plenty to get excited about. There’s no going back now; higher education institutions know the sector is about to enter a long recovery period. 

“Putting online recruitment methods at the heart of what they do - particularly those methods that involve current students - can not only help them ride the storm, they’ll give them a real chance to thrive.”


A copy of the white paper is attached to this release. It can also be found here

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