Now is the time for change: what HE can learn from other sectors

By Michelle Gordon
Michelle Gordon was most recently Director of External Relations at the University of Sussex and part of the institution’s Covid-19 Executive Group. Michelle has worked at a senior level in a myriad of industries as well as for different Governments. She is now a freelancer.
23 February 2021

Now is the time to make more than superficial changes. If the past year’s pandemic has taught us anything about how great institutions function and bring people along with them, it’s that effective communications and genuine staff engagement has to be both the beating heart and thinking head of the organisation.  

Whilst many universities should be commended for the pace and effort behind their communications to students and staff during this pandemic, savvy institutions will already be fully adapting to this changed world. However, there is a blinding opportunity staring right at our collective face and this should be part of the new normal. That is, we need to truly embed communications in an organisation’s decision-making process rather than it being somewhere down the chain, and to approach this as a strategic rather than operational function. By requiring that all academic and professional services leaders have an internal and external engagement responsibility (not just those in the HR or marketing or comms departments), smart institutions will ensure there is a mandate to drive transformation.

Powerful communications and engagement transcend the boundaries of sectors. Primary schools teach children to be ‘magpies’ and take what they know from elsewhere and apply it to their learning. HE needs to do the same. It’s time to pivot strategies and go much further to adapt our ways of working. Here’s a starter guide to what universities, who are serious about success, can be doing in 2021.

Adapting to the digital economy

Basic operational thinking won’t transform anything. Strategies to better communicate and create a two-way conversation have to be based on data-led insights – in quick time and incorporated into the annual planning process. Just as institutions have invested in systems to enhance the student experience, more needs to be done with marketing and communications tools to better understand stakeholder behaviour and address their demands. And they are demands, not polite requests.  

Let’s take one stakeholder example. Segmenting students in simple groupings of UG and PG or Home and International, or different teaching years or geographic origin and so on, doesn’t provide enough intelligence to inform how we should be engaging individuals. More sophisticated and nuanced perspectives are now required, and university leadership teams will need to do more to ensure ‘user’ personalisation.

It’s no longer effective to have adequate websites or CRM tools, in-house teams need to be able to comprehensively track and analyse the worth of campaigns and to quickly adapt to changing needs. To a certain degree, you get what you pay for, but it’s worth remembering that these aren’t dead investments.  

This is not the purview of technology or media entertainment companies, who can work out and serve up our desires by anticipating what we will want to access in the future and who are constantly innovating. We must learn from them. Most sectors cottoned on a long time ago that the bread and butter of any organisation is knowing its customers’ preferences and linking its digital systems to ensure deep knowledge. Tesco launched its Club Card back in 1995. If our supermarkets have been working to understand behaviours and digital journeys for many years, then where does that leave our sector? HE needs to catch up, and students know that.

Branding is not the brand

A stylish logo, ‘house’ colours and brand guidelines have little to do with ensuring your organisation is noticeable and attractive. That’s visual branding. Sure, it’s a small part of how an institution practically goes about marketing itself, but true and effective brand profiling is ensuring your story is all pervading. This sounds like a suck eggs kind of a statement but dig a little and many institutions will realise they are not positively showcasing their brand (internally and externally) at every point of contact. A brand flows throughout and is as much about how a receptionist greets your visitors and your staff talk about their place of work. It’s not just posters at a bus stop or an Instagram story.

Some in HE might want to get over the notion that saying ‘brand’ is off-putting. Falling at the first hurdle and grappling with semantics is the HE of old. By recognising that an organisation is just like a person, with a personality to boot, universities can differentiate themselves from the plethora of others, all offering similar things. A change in approach to reflect the nuances and strengths of an organisation and matching that with a stakeholder first mentality, is a good start.

So perhaps we should reconsider our questions. Is your university an education or research brand, or both, or is it something else? Could it be thought of as a youth organisation? Is it a challenger or leader in specific academic disciplines or professional development? What’s your institution’s true (rather than inflated) strength or essence? 

Many students are tired of reading about ‘world-leading’ or ‘research intensive’ but do staff, funders and other stakeholders still find these terms engaging? In this new world, institutions need to do much more to create a connection.

Fashion and lifestyle brands (and you’d argue certain car companies) know a thing or two when it comes to projecting aspiration and motivating people to want to get in on the action. Is it such a stretch for universities to do the same? This can be done with credibility and panache, and there are already a few institutions who do this, although none at scale. 

Of course, there needs to be substance behind the marketing. But if you consider other markets where a ‘buyer’ would pay £9k or more a year on a service or goods, they would certainly be treated like a valued, luxury goods purchaser. So, whilst the term ‘consumer’ might be considered a dirty word in HE, I can understand why students have certain expectations. But that’s another blog post!

Maintaining staff programmes or practice is key even with stretched budgets

Investing in loyal staff and, more so than ever, prioritising wellbeing, can quickly elevate an organisation to one that is culturally more content, and positively influencing education and research outcomes. This concept isn’t new to HE and most will already have strategies in place to encourage discretionary effort from staff. But are they working in practice? To be clear, this is not about expecting staff to work without compensation – but rather ensuring that people are properly supported and feel proud of their contribution to their place of work with their efforts recognised. It’s a virtuous circle.

In some respects, this comes back to communications and engagement. Most organisations, from energy to banking to pharmaceuticals, (think those working on the Covid vaccine) have invested heavily in ensuring their staff understand the vision and organisational strategies and in doing so, are able to translate that into reality. As much as many HE leaders wouldn’t want to think of their institution as a corporate, the benefits from having a deeply embedded and on-going programme of awareness and genuine staff buy in, shouldn’t be overlooked. To do that in a way that’s going to get real purchase, means consistently being transparent about institutional developments, taking criticism and genuinely incorporating feedback from staff, students and other stakeholders. If some institutions asked themselves if they are ‘really’ doing that (and going beyond the superficial or defensive tact), they may not like the answer. 

But all is not lost 

HE has a lot to be proud about and has already shown through the pandemic that it can adapt, and quickly. But broadening our insights and being a parliament of magpies by taking the best from other sectors, might just make the difference between an institution surviving the fallout of Covid-19 and thriving in these continuing uncertain times.