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There may be digital answers to the UK’s university decline

With reports that UK universities have never ranked lower in the international league tables, we look at what digital solutions might exist to set the HE sector on a new path.

The news that three quarters of the UK’s universities have fallen in the international league tables, and that the sector as a whole is suffering its worst rankings ever, risks being seen as another part of the disaster-magnet that is the Covid-19 crisis.

It’s worse than that.

The data which drove the conclusions from QS predates the current pandemic and although there are comparable falls in US and European rankings, the issues which caused the decline predate the virus and its wider effects.

It’s based, according to the QS director of research Ben Sowter, on Brexit (remember that?), the perception of a hostile environment in the UK, the decline in student/teacher ratios and the growth of a number of Asian universities in particular.

These are long-term trends, not a short-term issue. And it is vital that they are addressed - the UK’s national image, and a fair amount of its soft power, lies in its venerable institutions - the power of the likes of Oxford and Cambridge and their dreaming spires, and the drive of its research and innovation to power the economy. Decline in the universities’ reputations and subsequent failing economic health affects us all. Now, there’s not much that universities can do about Brexit, so let’s set that, and the notion of a hostile environment, aside for another day.

So what can they tackle? Some of the devil is in the data. Many moons ago, I edited the Guardian’s university league tables, centred on the UK only. The institutions I dealt with were somewhat cavalier with the data. One, for example, couldn’t tell me how many people they employed as teaching staff. And when the student/teacher ratio is such a fundamental part of any rankings, that seemed almost criminal, and they, inevitably, suffered in the tables.

So, while I assume that has been addressed, the accurate presentation of data and its delivery in the best light is key - but remains a secondary part of actually investing in teaching and research in the first place.

That investment is going to be difficult when universities’ finances are likely to further deteriorate as they deal with falling student numbers (both UK and international), due to the coronavirus, leading to a £460m shortfall as students defer.

Universities need to show that the student experience, both academic and social, will remain vibrant, even for those enrolling in September this year. While Cambridge have already announced they will deliver lectures online, most universities are holding their fire about their own teaching and the delivery methods - but they will need to assure students that the quality of their education will not suffer and that the social aspect of their student experience will be worthwhile.

That requires strong messaging - much of it digitally delivered direct to the target audience through the social platforms that have become a vital part of their lives in lockdown.

Organic and paid-for campaigns across a range of social media, from Snapchat to Tiktok and Weibo to Wechat, can persuade students that the quality of their learning and their lives will remain high. And that goes especially for international students for whom the experiential side of a UK education is key.

Working across agencies, from tourism authorities to the Great campaign to the British Council, driving home a message that the UK is open will be a key part of it. The brand heritage of the UK remains high, even if its political prestige is less so. Now is the time to drive digital marketing campaigns like never before - targeting specific countries where links remain strong, with creative and honed campaigns, and delivering user journeys which include geo-targeted translated websites to those countries.

Digital delivery of the education itself will also be core. The pandemic has driven most of us online and the levels of acceptance of video conferencing for teaching, engaging and content delivery has never been higher. Genuine digital teaching can answer a number of problems - a flipped classroom model of online lectures and socially distanced tutorials can answer many problems and may well become normal in the months and years to come.

The willingness to find new ways to (satisfactorily) deliver courses digitally can not only engage students on campus, but can also engage those who cannot afford, or don’t wish to, travel to the UK.

That can open new markets, for ‘full’ undergraduate courses, but also for niche programmes or short courses where reputations remain strong. Diversifying revenue streams from a broader range of educational products can help plug the financial gaps that many will face, and giving students access to digital teaching at one or two rungs below the full undergraduate experience can deliver learning at relatively low cost, while still allowing to charge a version of the tuition fees, perhaps in partnership with local institutions such as English language schools.

However it’s done, for the UK’s universities to remain strong as teaching institutions, the answer cannot lie wholly in the in-bound model, especially for overseas students who are finding stronger providers closer to home. While investment and marketing can improve the incoming numbers from abroad, digital delivery can start to map out new alternatives that might nudge those reputations back up the league.

Disquiet Dog provides digital strategy consultancy and digital marketing solutions for the education and experiential learning sector. Read more in our series on how to market education in a crisis