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On the right track for good student engagement?

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Right now, millions of applicants are nervously awaiting their A-level results to see whether they’ve made the grades to study at their first or back-up choice university. Whatever the outcome, there is likely to be a wave of enquiries in the coming month as the prospect of study becomes more real for these applicants.

How universities respond to those queries could be critical in convincing an offer-holder that it is the right institution for them, particularly with the clearing window upon us which brings with it lots of movement.

We know from our Enquiry Experience Tracker (EET), however, that universities don’t always get this right. An annual research programme conducted in partnership with education experts Edified, our EET helps UK universities understand how they’re responding to enquiries from prospective students and where they could improve engagement.

The EET results from 2021 showed that one in four enquiries went unanswered. There’s a real risk that this gets worse as universities struggle to cope with the sheer volume of last-minute enquiries. And this year, universities are operating in the context of a huge rise in enquiries and applications from international students, which will be stretching resources to the limit.  Across the UniQuest partner group alone there are over 70,000 additional students holding offers in the pipeline compared to the same time last year.

Whether that ‘unanswered query’ statistic improves or deteriorates this year will soon become clear, with our 2022 EET due to be published in October. Ahead of that, here’s a summary of the headline findings from our 2021 research so we know what universities are looking to build on.

In 2021, we used six prospective home and international student ‘personas’ or ‘mystery shoppers’ to contact 54 universities – 53 were in the UK and one was in Ireland – via enquiry channels including phone, e-mail, web forms and live chat.

The report produced by our research was provided to each university, so they could compare their individual performance with that of the sector.

We found that global disruption and uncertainty caused by factors such as the pandemic and an ever-increasing choice of higher education opportunities led to a marked increase in the propensity for students to contact potential universities before applying for a place.

With an average Enquiry Experience score of 57 out of 100, our 2021 EET showed that UK universities were meeting many student requirements, responding well to the changing global landscape and broadly providing a positive enquiry experience for prospective students.

However, it also highlighted clear and ongoing opportunities for universities to improve their communications and connect with students in a way that better reflects the spirit of the institution. The key areas for improvement are:

  • 1 in 4 enquiries didn’t receive a reply within the maximum allowable time frame – of three weeks for email and 15 minutes for phone and live chat;
  • 1 in 5 communications were perceived by our prospective students to be cold or overly administrative;
  • Just 1 in 6 enquiries received a follow-up message;
  • Just 1 in 8 phone enquiries was rated as excellent;
  • A mere 6% of the universities provided mobile messaging such as WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger – showing a clear mismatch between what universities offer and how generations Y and Z prefer to communicate.

Different student cohorts also reported different experiences:

  • Postgraduate students had a better experience than undergraduates;
  • International students enjoyed a better experience than home students;

This demonstrates that there really is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to communicating with prospective students, and that to deliver on the needs and expectations of the entire student body, universities need a blend of channels and approaches.

If you’d like to learn more about our research, a sample report of our 2021 EET can be seen here.

And if you’re interested in finding out about the very latest challenges faced by universities when communicating with prospective students, please get in touch to receive our 2022 Enquiry Experience Tracker report.