CubedThinks: Post Covid-19 – A whole new world for UK universities

CubedThinks: Post Covid-19 – A whole new world for UK universities

We are ready for whatever comes next

It’s the end of the world as we know it, as R.E.M. sang. But this time they’re right for the university sector. But why now?

UK universities have survived world wars, global terrorism and major changes in society. They have  grown, expanding UK and international student numbers and even adopted modern business practice. But a 1960’s student would still recognise much of university life. The timetable is still founded on an undergraduate starting in September, ‘normal’ teaching is  face to face with full-time students, exams are (mostly) on paper and the summer is still for research and academic conferences.

But even before Covid-19, change was well advanced with policy and competition re-shaping the sector. Universities positioned themselves on the ‘losing’ side during the Brexit debate. For many, they changed from neutral advisers to government and society, into biased ‘experts’ hoping to influence the public for their own gain. And of course, the issue of pay and privilege led many to view Vice Chancellors and Principals as out of touch and over-paid. Many universities lost sight of their civic mission losing the respect and support of their communities. No longer viewed as charitable institutions, they were treated just like any other business or employer.

Population and society were already going through a seismic shift, but in two different directions. The ageing (voting) population seeing HE as less relevant to them, especially compared to investing in public services like the NHS. Smaller in number Gen Z, those risk averse but tech savvy children of the financial crisis and austerity, were more concerned about the climate emergency. Spurred to direct action, Gen Z will hold to account those who don’t share their views and concerns.

Covid-19 will amplify the current trends. The massive interruption in normal life gives ample time to reflect on the future and what is important. Everyone is using informal online learning, from the Joe Wicks daily workout to how to make a lasagne. And when the lockdown is over, we will all face a global and UK economy plunged into recession with massive government debt. No one yet knows the long-term impact on student recruitment by the disruption and whether it will bounce back. Certainly there will be very tough choices about UK public spending, with the NHS clearly at the front of the queue.

University finances weakened by the demographic dip and rising pension costs are facing a huge black hole in 2020 caused by the impact of Covid-19. And changes in public investment and society, accelerated by Covid-19 are a major risk for a financial model underpinned by government backed student loans. Governments faced with difficult choices may well intervene in the market with student number controls or forced mergers.

Of course there are also positive trends. The dip in the UK youth population is finally levelling off and numbers will begin to really increase in the coming years. With a new post-study work visa, UK universities will be better placed to recruit international students. And the sector is getting strong recognition for its help in the fight against Covid-19 – faced with a global pandemic the ‘expert’ is back in fashion.

The good news – yes there is some – is those universities that get their strategy right, who can exploit new markets and who are nimble, will not just survive but prosper in this brave, new world.

Top tips for surviving in a post Covid-19 world

Market research and trend-spotting – will be the foundation of strategy and future success. Research and analysis will help understand changes in demand, the needs of students and what unique benefits you can provide. Allied with institutional strengths and weaknesses you can identify where the real opportunities lie. Analysing market trends and student demand will help develop the new courses that will ensure survival. It will also help develop the focussed marketing campaigns needed to reach future students without breaking the bank.

Strong brands – prosper in a more competitive environment. A clear mission and investment in brand will deliver a distinct offer to students and communities. Values must align with the environmentally responsible Gen Z, and in a recession, both students and government will be looking for value for money. So focus your resources like alumni and use them as your brand champions. Universities must avoid being the ‘bankers’ of the recession, act now so when Covid-19 is over you’re seen as a hero not a villain, a solution not a problem.

Portfolio renewal – will be essential to develop the new courses and modes of delivery required for career changers and to adapt to workplace changes. This needs to be strategic with a genuine appreciation of your university’s strengths, weaknesses and capability. When supported by a clear mission and market intelligence it will help to make difficult decisions about what courses to close. A clear strategy will allow a planned move away from traditional face to face teaching to a blended model and an always on approach to both portfolio and services.

Exploit new opportunities – PG and part-time demand increases during a recession, so run campaigns now for final year UG students. Invest in premium priced flagship courses and build flexibility into entry points like January starts and expand summer schools. If you have the right portfolio, target the cash and time-rich older population with ‘leisure’ learning. And if you’re a subject market leader, provide ‘nose to tail’ portfolio. From tasters and entry level courses, to postgraduate CPD, from full awards to alternative qualifications and micro credentials. If you also deliver ground-breaking research, own the whole territory and refresh your content with unique insight – a very clear USP. Online learning will grow but unless you are already a major supplier you need a clear strategy. Major investment will be needed so build on a niche where you have real strengths and established credibility – think depth not breadth of portfolio.

Invest in digital marketing and communication – after months of isolation even the most ardent technophobe will be a keen user of online services. Focus spend on targeted marketing campaigns and content for social media channels. Mobilise alumni as your digital champions and advocates and for Gen Z use micro-influencers to turn fans into ‘stans’ who share your values and content.

Build strong partnerships – from your local community to global institutions, use strategic partnerships to enhance reputation and brand. Future learning and future research are going to be more online and more transnational, get the partnerships in place now to deliver this.

And finally…

Critical to success will be your people. Nurture them through the crisis and celebrate their successes. They need to understand the reasons for change and be strong advocates, and true believers in a shared mission. In the end a university needs good people committed to great teaching and research – so invest time and effort in bringing them with you on the journey.

I don’t think anyone is expecting everything to go back to how it was before Covid-19. Marketers will be vital in helping institutions adapt to a massively changed world.  Universities who can learn from the past but adapt quickly will survive and prosper, those who can’t or won’t change will need deep pockets to weather the coming storm or may well need a lifeboat as the ship goes down.

Take care and stay safe.

Martyn Spence MA (Marketing) FCIM Chartered Marketer