The time is now for higher education to evolve student recruitment

How three institutions pivoted during Covid-19

The global pandemic has introduced new challenges for recruitment and admissions leaders in higher education. Even before the onset of COVID-19, higher education institutions across the UK and Europe were evolving in response to major changes in the student recruitment landscape, including shifting demographics, increased competition, demand for digital first experiences, and building inclusive and diverse student cohorts.

Since COVID-19, some of the more immediate challenges have ranged from how to deliver open days to using predictive grades for assessment and the impact on international student enrolment. More than ever, today’s universities are transforming digitally and using technology to build connections, break down silos, deliver personalised experiences to prospective students and better respond to their needs.

During a recent webinar, the University of East Anglia (UEA), the University of Geneva and ESSEC Business school shared how they are delivering online recruitment events, engaging prospective students virtually and leveraging artificial intelligence to proactively support every applicant.

Watch On-Demand Webinar: Navigating Recruitment and Admissions in Uncharted Waters

Recruitment and admissions teams rising to the challenge

The admissions, recruitment and marketing team at The University East Anglia (UEA) was in a similar position as other institutions when COVID-19 initially began impacting Europe. UEA experienced big changes at a fast pace and was forced to adjust to remote campus operations. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for the university to adapt its strategy to mitigate the impact of the pandemic and ensure that its student population was supported. 

With its cloud-based platform, the recruitment team transitioned to working remotely and continued to provide timely, personalised communications and relevant support to enquiring students rather than simply broadcasting information. Utilising digital platforms, such as its content hub, online communities and Q&As on social media, had never been so critical to delivering a sense of belonging. 

“Throwing the rulebook out” has empowered UEA to not only discover new ways to engage with applicants online but also to find confidence to embrace more forward-thinking tactics and strategies. Today the team is determined to maximise all of these learnings in the future.

Open days and in-person recruitment events also looked very different this recruitment season. For Brigitte Perrin, the head of communications, continuing education at the University of Geneva, resilience and creativity are most important in time of crisis. So, when it came time to reimagine the university’s open day, it had to quickly and creatively find a way to replicate this experience online. 

The team at University of Geneva decided to shift to an all-digital strategy and to recreate its event virtually. Prospective students were able to interact on the platform with staff and attend a fully virtual tour of the university campus. COVID-19 gave teams the opportunity to think outside of the box and to transform what used to be the standard open day. The results were extremely positive – the university tripled the number of prospective students that typically engage in its in-person events and broadened its reach as several international visitors attended the event online.

ESSEC Business School’s first challenge at the onset of the COVID-19 restrictions was to redefine its admission processes. Flexibility became a “watchword” for the school. As the teams started to review applications, they shifted all interviews online and adjusted the payment options. These adjustments, combined with regular communications, allowed ESSEC to continue attracting the ‘best fit’ students and ensure that no candidate was at a disadvantage. 

Following this, the big challenge focused on revisiting the onboarding process so that students who were not able to travel in September would be able to familiarise themselves with the university and their classmates. Today, the institution plans on digitising the welcome week and offering more virtual 1:1 advising sessions to help students complete their registration, find housing accommodation or adjust their courses schedule. The more digital the school has become, the easier it has been to capture information on prospective students, efficiently score applicants, personalise communications, track the performance of the team and adjust its efforts in real-time. Looking back at these few months, Samuel Vinet, head of recruitment and marketing, is certain that on-going personalised communications, a strong online presence, and proactive support are critical to support a great start to the new academic year.

In listening to these institutions, it’s clear that, as operations and engagement strategies have shifted, students’ need to have a connected experience and feel a sense of belonging to a university community remains. Just as these institutions have done, to make the most of a challenging situation, the institutions that put the needs of prospective students first will be more likely to meet their goals and succeed.

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