Students want clarity but they’ll settle for empathy

Robert Perry reviews how students are feeling over the summer and the way they want to be communicated with by universities.

Right now, normality feels special. We’ve all endured so many changes this year that being able to point to something that’s happening as planned gives us an anchor, a little piece of solid ground when everything else is so uncertain.

Take A level results day. Many in the sector took some comfort from the fact that A level students will be getting their results in August, as we had all been planning for.

That’s what the government hoped for when it made that announcement in April, at any rate:

These dates are the same as those published at the start of this academic year, and I hope will provide further clarity for all those young people receiving results in the summer.”

And while it might have been great news for the sector to know that no changes to the schedule were needed to allow for an early clearing round, it meant pretty much nothing to students themselves. Clarity about the date they’d get their results, maybe… but clarity about anything else? Not so much.

Normal people

You can’t provide a feeling of normality and reassurance to students by telling them they’ll get their results on the same day all the years before them have had theirs. Firstly, we’re in a pandemic. Things change. We expect them to change. And secondly, there’s no such thing as a standard admissions cycle for a student. They only go through it once (well, usually).

When that April announcement was made, applicants had already been off school for several weeks. They then discovered there would be another four months before they found out what the future might hold for them. Four months with no school, no exams, and only allowed outside once a day for some fresh air.

Many of them had been told not to contact their teachers about their grades. Some were told not to contact schools at all. Still others were advised by their schools not to contact universities, and to let them get on with their selection processes (unsurprisingly, this suggestion was ignored).

Voices of normality

When we spoke to students during this time, we learned a lot about how they were reacting to the pandemic, how it was making a difference to their lives, and what effect it was having on their plans for the future. But there were three things in particular that suggest an important role for universities over the summer:

  • They feel abandoned
  • They’re talking to other students
  • They want to hear from real people

Finding out that there were months to go until they would know what was going to happen next, and not knowing where to turn for advice led them to feel like they’d been abandoned. We know they weren’t actually abandoned. When asked, they would often point to school communications or emails from universities that would suggest it wasn’t as bad as they made out – but that didn’t diminish the strength of their feeling.

And it turns out that emails from universities weren’t helping much either. Students felt that universities were ignoring them – not sending anything to them in the first place, or sending things that seemed to be impersonal or even automated. One had received an invitation to choose their accommodation for September, which was – perhaps – a little tone-deaf.

Don’t get me wrong, there are universities doing great things with their comms – and things have got a lot better in recent weeks, especially now that universities are planning for what September might look like. But even now, students are still holding on to those feelings from the early days, and – what do you know – they’re telling each other about what they’ve experienced.

Swapping stories

The enforced online communications of lockdown mean that students have had a lot more time to talk to each other and to students already at university. They have heard stories – good and bad – about how universities have handled different aspects of the pandemic in the term just gone, and they trust those as signals for what will happen next term more than they do official statements.

But that’s where the opportunity lies. One of the things that students cited as most reassuring and comforting when they did hear from universities – or when they got in touch themselves – was knowing that they were communicating with a real person. It might have been someone in the admissions office, a tutor in the department they want to study in, or even seeing a live Q&A with university leaders.

Whatever form it took, knowing that there was another human being taking an interest in their future really did help them. Kate Roll and Marc Ventresca have suggested that personal contact becomes even more important when teaching moves online, and I’d argue the same is true for recruitment.

And that humanity is the key here. Students want clarity, of course. They want assurances. In many cases universities can’t offer this. But what they can offer is humanity. Empathy. It might be a lot of effort, but if you’re worried about students deferring this year then some effort might be worthwhile.

And if they choose not to come? Then at least you know you did the right thing, and those students will tell others that’s what you did.

One response to “Students want clarity but they’ll settle for empathy

  1. That’s a great piece Robert, and certainly advocates the role of Social Media / Community Managers across the sector who play a huge part in the delivery of personalised digital comms.

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