British universities have increasingly been making efforts to engage with young people from social groups that have traditionally struggled to gain entry to higher education. Nevertheless, recent research indicates that these initiatives are still failing to connect with the UK’s working class community.
A 2019 report from the National Education Opportunities Network, for example, found that half of England’s universities had fewer than 5% poor white students attending, with many sought-after Russell Group institutions stuck in the 2-3% range. A similarly bleak message is evident in research published last year by the Higher Education Policy Institute.
The reasons for this lacklustre performance are complex. One that we repeatedly come across at Meet & Engage is a sense among poorer students that university isn’t for them; indeed, many lack the confidence or social skills to engage with the university admissions process to discover whether this is actually the case. Overwhelmed by the cost of attending university (even travelling to open days can be out of reach financially), they don’t bother to apply.
There is no better way to open up the university selection process than by showcasing people from a similar background who have succeeded
My view is that digital technology could play a key role in breaking down these barriers, by demystifying and simplifying the application process and helping universities communicate a more inclusive culture. The kind of things universities could implement relatively easily include:
Online group chats
One of the biggest problems facing children in poorer communities is that they can’t envisage themselves functioning in a university environment. A simple response to this would be online group chats that allow prospective students to speak directly with undergraduates and graduates from similar socio-economic circumstances. There is no better way to open up the university selection process than by showcasing people from a similar background who have succeeded – people who can talk frankly about paying back loans or getting part-time jobs.
Online group chats can also be used to address some of the tough questions associated with university, such as student finance and bursaries. So, alongside undergrads and alumni, experts can explain how such processes work, with an option for one-to-one chat available to follow up. All of the digital assets from online group chats can be stored, so that potential candidates can review them later.
Used as part of the university application process, chatbots can be a powerful navigational tool for people not quite ready to talk to a real person. Crucially, they are anonymous, non-judgmental and don’t transmit subconscious messaging (around accents, for example).
They are a useful point of entry for students to find out whether there is any point in applying. Chatbots might, for example, provide insights into contextual offers – reassuring a student that their more challenging circumstances will be taken into account. Chatbots can be located in key areas of the university website (e.g. finance) or linked to targeted third-party sites. As with group chats, they can also provide a pathway to one-to-one follow-ups, once the would-be candidate is ready to act.
Virtual open days
Travelling from Plymouth to Durham, or Carlisle to London, for an open day, can be a deal-breaker for some people – which is why this year has seen a rail firm offering free tickets for students to attend open days. But some of the strain could be taken out of the system with virtual open days (VOD) that allow students to gain an insight into an institution without having to travel there.
While many universities now post short videos on their websites – and there have been some big developments in the VOD field, particularly over the last 12 months – more institutions need to offer this form of engagement to bring a university to life for prospective students. There could be live streaming events where admissions teams, department experts and successful applicants from previous years share experiences and insights. This could be run in parallel with pre-loaded videos about halls, finance etc. As with group chats, such resources have valuable shelf life.
Online group chats can also be used to address some of the tough questions associated with university
A final thought
The uncomfortable reality is that poorer students don’t just struggle to get into top universities, they also find it difficult to secure the best jobs after graduation. For universities that genuinely want to make a difference in the lives of poorer students, the digital approaches outlined above need to be deployed throughout the undergraduate journey. Platforms like these are a way for universities to work with businesses to find a joint solution to the challenge of widening participation. Once again, collaboration between the two could be endorsed by students who have been supported by their university in the job-hunting process. An added incentive for universities to take this holistic approach to digital is that it could show up positively in league tables. It also wouldn’t do a university any harm in the recruitment stakes if it could show it is working directly with respected firms to open up paths to employment.
Kathy Johnson is client partner at candidate engagement tech firm, Meet & Engage