Amidst the chaos of setting up workplaces at home, shifting classes online, keeping the international students who are here happy and safe and keeping up daily communications with staff, universities need to be gearing-up for the long game.

It’s the student pipeline.

International student recruitment is currently fiendishly complicated, but can continue in some form in numerous countries thanks to the networks of agents living and working in-country. Even in residential lockdowns, potential students can spend time planning their future studies and international teams will be bolstering online resources to tool up agents for the 2021 intake.

Domestic student recruitment is a whole different kettle of fish.

Domestic students are the backbone of university operations, and you need a continuous drip feed of them to maintain university enrolments over time.

In a market cluttered with massive amounts of information, countless market research projects have shown that students are frequently completely bamboozled by their options. Each university claims strengths, virtues and opportunities and offerings such as business, IT or nursing often appear very similar.

Students and their parents have come to rely on direct interaction with universities at open days and expos to facilitate their course decision.

The face-to-face student recruitment season usually kicks off in May, with Melbourne’s VCE Expo and then continues with open days and expos around the country.

But when gatherings are currently restricted to numbers way below even the most boring, unsuccessful open days, what will universities do?

Open Day Committee meetings should already have started. Fights over the number of balloons on each table and plans to keep certain ageing lecturers away from the future students should already be well underway (but not complete certainly, those issues take months).

What does a university do to lock in any certainty of enrolments for 2021 if there is a chance that expos and open days may not happen?

There are lots of potential answers, many of which would be far more effective than the smash and grab brochure raids at expos or the all-day siege around spruikers of popular subjects at open days.

But domestic students, in a year of unprecedented uncertainty, are going to need a bit of extra support this year, and while we are all busy with the now, planning new, creative solutions for domestic recruitment needs to literally start next week.

If it doesn’t, stand by for a record number of deferrals, transfers and withdrawals in early 2021 as students realise they are not getting what they thought they signed up for.

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


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