Let’s be frank, just between ourselves. Domestic recruitment has been a colour-in-by-the-numbers effort at too many institutions for too long.

We have all seen it. The annual school visit list is rolled out each February, last year’s PowerPoint is touched up ever so slightly and once the order is in for some new pens, the team are set to go.

For ten years, secondary students have been yawning at me as they tried to recall just which uni had visited their school last and what they said – because coast to coast, up and down the nation, the patter sounded the same.

Cue PowerPoint slide with a heavy-handed on-brand picture. And a sigh from the routine-weary presenter, trying to summons a veneer of approachability. “Hi, I am (insert name) from (insert name) and I’m here to tell you about your options for (insert uni/TAFE) next year. Next slide please.”

Most of the students have already nodded off or are covertly scrolling on their phones. A few keen ones will either be laughing at you, because they would never consider lowering themselves to apply for your institution, or else listening intently, trying to lock in eye contact because they will climb over their parents or even their phone retailer if they think it might somehow give them an upper hand to win the university place they are dreaming of.

And then you have the virtual flavour of the coming month, Open Days. It’s a great concept – get a taste of the campus, meet professors and students who can answer all your questions directly, share some japes with whacky student club groupies. The reality of what is all too often delivered is grim: the fights over which faculty gets the biggest share of balloons and merchandise; the grim reality of the brochure smash and grab; the mosh pit around business and medicine watched over by the lonely souls on the IT booth;  and the insistence on long, turgid presentations by the ranking academics who long ago should have been told to stay away from children, prospective students and/or dinner party guests.

I know the stories have a whiff of familiarity. As I go from university to university, pretty much everyone agrees the current approach is a bit passé. But, ” it’s the schools’ fault”. Or “that only happens at our competitors.” “It’s what the parents want.” Or, more honestly, “It’s the Faculty’s fault, because the product can’t be distinguished from the other nine degrees on offer with the same name.”

But what if it isn’t the fault of those other people? What if it is really our fault?

Open days and school presentations have powerful potential, but if we are being honest (or alternatively, if we listen to the thousands of students that I have discussed this with over the past decade or so); the way we have been delivering domestic recruitment on average has been killing the joy of 17 and 18 year olds for a generation.

The onset of COVID-19 prompted the rapid deployment of virtual open days in 2020, and as the virus insisted on staying, new mutant strains of open day have emerged. Many look strikingly similar to last years, but unlike COVID, the new open day variants have not yet managed to find ways to grab our attention.

From a student perspective, the range of on-line open days, open houses, abandonment of open days and hybrid events is confusing. The traditional August-focused Open Day season has spread out across most of the year as some universities seek to outrun lockdowns, with open events now running from March until September.

Secondly, there is wild diversity in terms of effort to cater to student need. The University of Sydney has a vastly better virtual open day platform this year, taking an easy five minutes to register; while UNSW currently offers tickets to a September 4 day that through hubris or hopefulness is slated as a campus event. In contrast, UNE has decided to cancel Open Days altogether, offering instead just the option to call the future student team.

Elsewhere across NSW. teams at Charles Sturt and Wollongong are scrambling to reschedule open days – with shiny-eyed year 12s at the Gong forced to wait until the end of September for the big event. Meanwhile a number of events in Queensland, Victoria and WA have already occurred – leaving behind only an unappetising remainder of webinar recordings, disconnected chat boards and relentlessly generic campus tour videos (Ready, set, Walk across campus setting! Cue student band! Cut to scripted student testimonial!)

It is surprising how hard universities have struggled to communicate where they are going with these events – with a number of marketing and recruitment teams clinging to empty brand designs and trying to straddle an uncomfortable space between the old open day concept and a new hybrid information event.

So where to from here?

In the immortal words of Gough Whitlam: It’s Time. Time to set fire to your PowerPoint files, stick the pens in the stationery cupboard, and only keep the word Open Day if you really mean it.

After an audit of the events on offer, there are a couple of really outstanding platforms that universities have primarily developed in-house and frankly, lots of room for improvement elsewhere. 2021 virtual open days are a step up on 2020, but we are still a fair way from meeting future student need effectively.

It’s time to let secondary schools in on the fact that open days might have to die, and establish a dialogue about what’s next and what can be better. It’s time to start creating opportunities for non-school leavers to engage without feeling like they have to pretend to be 18 again.

Tim Winkler, Director of Twig Marketing, has consulted to more than half of Australia’s universities on strategy, business development, marketing, recruitment and communication


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