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Tertiary education: time to start thinking like a company

05 October, 2020 Reading: 5:52 mins
Hugh Massam

By Hugh

Covid is proving to be both a major threat and a major opportunity in tertiary education, but it seems to me no one is seizing it with real urgency.

Tertiary education: time to start thinking like a company

Covid is proving to be both a major threat and a major opportunity in tertiary education, but it seems to me no one is seizing it with real urgency.

This last month, despite pandemic concerns and the move to online teaching, we’ve seen the traditional migration as half a million first years joined nearly two million existing students at university: but, as we’re already witnessing, this will be a year like no other.

Students that have headed to university this term have already been hit hard, being forced to self-isolate and face all learning online - and many of them are none too happy with the situation. Interestingly at least one university paid students to defer, after the UK’s A-level debacle meant they ran out of rooms. But to me it seems that this migration masks some big market shifts, and no universities seem to be really innovating, fully considering the issues many students face this year, or focusing on the way student life will be fundamentally changed, perhaps for the long term.

Yes, students returned to their university accommodation, but that’s possibly more about getting away from home where many have been stuck since March, than being excited to be at university.

Yes, Freshers Week seems to have happened but in a very restricted way – the brands and universities that have gone a little beyond Zoom session, time-restricted pizza nights may have created the ‘buzz’ students crave and won the loyalty they need, but that’s unlikely. Some student unions and brands like Pot Noodle have joined in innovations like The Digital Welcome in an effort to overcome this, but surely more could have been done?

Yes, students will mingle and attend classes but they will do so in a completely different way – and as we’ve seen they will be hit hard when - not if - Covid reaches their accommodation!! Many will now feel anxious about things like commuting, going to a class, visiting a bar or studying in the library. Many institutions have addressed the basics clearly and well: their websites talk prominently about cleanliness, online learning, student support services, visa issues, how they will handle virus outbreaks, social distancing and so on…. but it does feel rather like a band-aid approach to ‘get through’ until things go back to exactly how they were. This may simply never happen. For example, they need to do even more to make studying from your halls or student flat easy and fun – there is opportunity here to recognise that, just like many employers, perhaps the ‘place of work’ is now predominantly the bedroom (not a lecture hall, cafe or library). They need to focus on areas like nutrition, mental health and outreach, far more than before. They need to re-imagine how their spaces could be used and plan for far more nervous shut-ins who never leave their flats, new students with fewer support networks and the frustrated extrovert who is missing last year’s big nights out.

Besides obvious challenges like fewer international students, potential new virus outbreaks as students mingle, and managing shielding in mass accommodation, this creates a range of issues: from much higher general anxiety levels on arrival to rows between shut-in housemates. As a brand experience – which universities certainly are – spending 50 to 80% of your day in your bedroom means a very different view of the city and university. Marketers often look at a ‘typical day’ and how their brand fits: we can now see that a student’s typical day this year will be fundamentally different. So as a brand and a business, universities need to make sure they are seen as vital, helpful and customer-focused in this new day.

I’m sure everyone has seen the headlines over what’s been happening at many UK universities – and the outcry that many students feel they have been shortchanged. The UK’s high fees mean students now view themselves more clearly as customers in a competitive market, so it is valid to bring in business comparisons and the threat here is the same: there have now been major shifts in the markets that change the way you must serve them. Those that don’t listen carefully to new customer needs and pivot major aspects of the offer quickly and visibly, will certainly lose some of their best customers. Some big, well-known players will see their position challenged and those without a strong market position may go out of business. It will be really interesting to see how this maps out over the next few weeks as stricter, local lockdowns are imposed, and students feel even more cheated.

Universities exist partly to challenge the status quo and innovate across many areas, and many do the first steps well – but they need to apply these tools to their own operations. They have useful major assets such as buildings, staff, existing students (and often large green spaces and money) all of which needs to be looked at afresh to maximise them for a post-Covid market.

One thing 100% of students will still have and use is a phone, and that is most likely the single most important channel now, to go beyond basic information and really push the limits… so how can a tertiary-sector brand address more customer needs, reassure and retain customers day-to-day? How much can an institution go beyond this to build a new sense of connection, community and loyalty in a strange post-Covid world?

Thinking of students as customers and thinking digital-first will no doubt feel uncomfortable, the changes will be hard to do and there will be tough decisions to be made along the way: but clearly the virus has fundamentally changed the market and not just for a year, so the prize is substantial and the price of inaction is high.

One need look no further than your typical city centre to see that centuries-old habits, like commuting to work, have vanished in weeks, and perhaps forever, laying waste to whole ecosystems of businesses and institutions. As Jane Smaje of McKinsey put it “we are now in a winner-takes-all market. The top 1-2% of companies that adapt well will win hugely. I’ve seen companies achieve in 10 days things they say used to take 10 months …”

Thinking like a company may seem anathema to a university but the fact is, Covid has brought both big threats and big opportunities, and the first-movers who see this and act will have happier students and a much stronger future position in an uncertain world.

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