HE, content, and COVID-19: what are we facing?

By Posted in - Higher Education on March 30th, 2020 0 Comments Waves in the background. Text reads "HE, content and COVID-19: what are we facing?"

We’re only a couple of weeks into this very strange time, and only a few days into a government-advised lockdown. But with restrictions of some form likely to last for months, it’s important that we take stock of the massive impact this is going to have on how we work, how we socialise, and – most importantly for our sector – how we learn.

Schools are closed. Some A-level (and equivalent) students will still be learning, but for most, that’s it. Exams have been cancelled, and students are going to be given estimated grades by a process that is as-yet unrevealed. In turn, we don’t know what this is going to mean for the university recruitment process, particularly in regard to Clearing – with no A-level results day, will Clearing even be a *thing* this year?

And with the knowledge that students weren’t going to be sitting exams came a rather unseemly scramble to secure students for September. A number of universities immediately sent out unconditional offers to prospective students, in volumes that led the Office for Students to respond with a politely worded slap on the wrist. I think we all understand that students want to feel some sense of security in this situation, but providing that needs to go hand-in-hand with supporting the values of our universities.

There are rumblings from government that the student number cap will be reintroduced this year, meaning that whatever the recruitment landscape looks like over the summer, it’s not going to be the one we’ve all been working in for the past half a decade. All universities in the UK are going to have to wrestle with what that means for how they communicate with applicants, whether it’s how to explain why they are now withdrawing an offer that might already have been made, or how to demonstrate their value to students who suddenly find themselves unable to attend their first choice institution.

Outdated knowledge

In content strategy we want to discover what the user need is. We want to dig into the audience’s motivations and desires so that we can present them with information that is useful and useable. In the higher education sector we know a lot about this – we’ve done a great deal of research into what the typical decision-making journey looks like for a student choosing a university to study at, so we know what’s important to them at different stages of that journey. Or we used to…

How are students going to make that decision in 2020? What’s going to be the thing that puts a university in the top spot for them? We know that many students want to travel to another city to study, to broaden their horizons, and that others prefer the options of studying in a university in their local region. But what will weeks of enforced isolation with their family do to either of those motivations? Will the need to get away from home be an even stronger driver this time? Or will the reality of this situation make teenagers feel like they want to stay closer to the support of their family and friends?

And we need to think about the differences this might make to what people want to study. To take the most obvious example, will the high profile of doctors and nurses mean that we see a surge (or decline) in people who want to study medicine or nursing course? Now that this crisis has shone a light on the precarity of some industries and roles, will there be even more interest from students in post-university job security and predicted earnings?

We’re going to need to rethink how we talk to students to help them make these decisions in the post-Covid-19 world. If it wasn’t already, then empathy with our audiences is going to be one of the most vital tools we have in our communication arsenal.

Long-lasting impact

We’ve already seen a public backlash against businesses that have treated their staff poorly during the pandemic, and it’s safe to say that the way universities deal with student concerns will come under similar scrutiny. It’s highly likely that “how this university treated students in 2020” will become a key piece of information in the decision-making journey – and that’s information that universities won’t be able to control if bad choices are made early on.

And then there’s the rankings data… none of the traditional league tables are going to be worth looking at this year. There will be so many caveats, outliers, footnotes and qualifying comments that they’ll be unusable – potentially for years to come. If that’s the case, what do universities do with all that space devoted to rankings information in their communications? What other information is going to be valuable to students? The sector is already widely making use of personal evidence from students in its marketing and communication efforts, and if rankings can’t be relied up, I think the student voice will be even more valuable than ever this year.

Online learning

The UK’s universities have now made a sudden switch to online learning for the 2020 summer term. This has been a herculean effort for many institutions, as it means students and staff adapting to new technologies and processes, in some cases things that have been resisted for many years. We’re also going to find out how much of a difference online learning makes to the student experience – if this becomes something that lasts beyond the summer, how many students will choose to defer or postpone so they can avoid a year of remote learning? How will “traditional” HE providers make their case against more modern institutions that might be more geared up for a successful online university experience? We probably already have the information students need to be able to make this choice for themselves, so our challenge now is to support them in making that decision: giving them the right advice, at the right time, in the right way – just like HE institutions should be doing with online learning itself.


Don’t get me wrong, I know there are much bigger things at stake in our society than how HE content strategists are going to respond to this pandemic. But I’ve always been an advocate for the importance of our sector in how society tackles these kinds of challenges. Effective communication with our audiences and communities is vital right now, and as content professionals we’re in a great position to adapt to the changing circumstances we find ourselves in. We can move quickly, we know our audiences, and we know what they need to hear. This year is not going to be business as usual, and content is going to have a big role to play – so let’s get it right.

I’ve asked a lot of questions in this post, and I definitely don’t have all the answers yet. But if you’re also thinking about this kind of thing, and want to discuss what it might mean for you and your institution, let me know. I’d love to hear from you.

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