Welcome to the university. Unless it’s night time. Or early morning. Or a weekend. Or a public holiday

It’s late evening and rather than go to bed, I decide to see which Victorian university is ready to sell me a Master of Marketing degree.

2022 marks my 20th year in the sector and bizarrely enough, I still get pretty excited each time I see the potential to engage with students and improve enrolments. Even more surprising is the fact that after 20 years there seem to be more opportunities than ever to improve.

After an hour and a half of exploring, there are some interesting results. No Victorian university is ready to take my call after 7pm on a weekday, and I shouldn’t even begin to find out more about my study options during weekends or public holidays. There will be no answer on the end of a university enquiry line for three quarters of the hours of any given week.

The key issue that I come across time and again over the course of 90 minutes, is a function of institutional egocentrism. I haven’t yet found an institution that doesn’t claim to be student first and yet the information categories, mode and timing of information delivery and even tone of most content is institution-centric.

It’s like a bad first date. The alpha institution is dressed beautifully and is clearly a complex beast, which talks eloquently and at great length about their achievements and the types of opportunities they offer, with the startled potential mate at once pursued and categorised – and as many, many focus groups have told me, often bewildered about what is being said. Outsiders have to train themselves to understand how we provide information and how we require information if they want to sign up for our courses.

A number of people imagined that two years of COVID interruption was going to be the great circuit breaker in university positioning, as staff stuck at home or in their home State at least were given new opportunities to roam beyond the business-as-usual hegemonic work- think that had prevailed for the previous decade. 2022 is the year in which the lessons of the pandemic are still raw enough within the institution to ignite / excuse new approaches – and hopefully that will still occur.

To get there, and start to be genuinely student-centric, requires a balance of the desire to promote mixed with the desire to engage. Too often big brand solutions trump imaginative and relevant content – leaving institutions with the desire to shunt uncertain students into empty courses, rather than go an extra mile and find a better fit. The cost and effort of changing curricula and the limitations of linkages between institutions and industry mean that courses are an incomplete transition point between student aspiration and career knowledge and skill requirements. Convene a couple of focus groups to listen to SME accounting partners or engineers about the job readiness of graduates if you want to hear the insights more forcefully and directly.

But before we get to course structure and engagement, there’s the simple matter of throwing out a welcome mat and letting people in to the programmes you already offer. Fixing that process is incredibly rewarding, but it also requires someone outside the institution to do it. Someone who hasn’t already been browbeaten into accepting that the world can’t change because the IT guys are grumpy and the dean hates change.

The minutiae of application forms and course information and website navigation really matters, not just to a few people in the marketing team, but to the whole institution.  The missed calls, inability to find out any more than you spew out on your course page and excessive formality and complication of course application processes are fundamentally affecting your ability to engage and enrol students – and the revenue you need to keep people employed next year.

So for those prepared to travel in the shoes of a prospective student for a moment, read on, otherwise, feel free to skip to the last paragraph.

Looking purely at a master of marketing degree in Victoria, I found some interesting issues. The number of mandatory fields I had to fill out on enquiry forms to register my interest in receiving more information varied from seven to 12 – but I couldn’t find the form for one university, and the form for enquiries and one-on-one consultation bookings at another didn’t work. Even the technology-focused institutions often seem to have challenges with their basic prospective student-facing tech.

Chatbots, endlessly and unsuccessfully touted as the ideal servant of the “other” (outsiders who would like some information – variously current students, prospective students or randoms who dare to bother us with questions about our institution), invariably disappointed. I started an argument with one robot, only to have my details flushed away when I refused to provide my phone number and instead requested a response via email. The AI under development in the corridors of IT departments across the country doesn’t appear to be making much of an inroads in terms of student engagement.

There were definitely some bright spots. One university out of the nine could guarantee me a 15 minute one on one consultation the next day on my topic of choice with a dedicated staff member. Another university appeared close to implementing the same service, while a third got me to fill out all 12 fields of a consultation form, only to respond that there were no appointments available – and all the details I had entered had been wiped from the form.

If you want to talk on the phone to a student recruitment person between nine and five on a weekday, there is a much better chance of getting in touch with someone (although sites warn of delays and high demand for enquiries at the moment, which feels pretty discouraging).

Interestingly, if you type master of marketing into the home page of one of Australia’s largest universities, it takes you directly to a 2017 handbook listing, while another university lists only a discontinued master of marketing course no longer taking students, in the first page of results from its marketing search.

Specialist recruitment and education service providers like OES and Keypath have learned the value of out-of-hours human availability, and on-demand assistance to navigate through the difficult layers that institutions throw up, preventing people from finding the information they need. Institutions tell me that they can’t ask staff to work out of hours – but the reality is that they risk their internal operations being overtaken by outsource agents who will accept calls any time unless they find ways to adapt.

There is a remarkable opportunity to enhance the experience for students from the first moment they engage with relatively little effort, if only we can check institutional egocentrism at the homepage door.

Tim Winkler is Director of Twig Marketing, Australia’s first specialist higher education marketing services and strategy consultancy


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