How can the higher education sector leverage WhatsApp during COVID-19?

A small but vital part of the answer to the crisis facing UK higher education lies with students — typically Gen Z — and their digital expectations to interact mobile-first

The global education sector was already under financial and logistical pressure before the pandemic hit. But the stakes are now far higher as COVID-19’s fallout on student enrolment and accommodation income hits home.

For instance, the UK’s higher education (HE) sector is facing a £19 billion black hole, with 13 universities at risk of insolvency due to the losses caused by the outbreak.

This pattern is echoed worldwide and means the education sector must find new and innovative ways to attract, engage and support residential/online students. But how? A small but vital part of the answer lies with the students themselves — typically Generation Z — and their digital expectations to interact mobile-first.

How WhatsApp can bridge the educational gap

Because of this demand, private education providers are increasingly turning to messaging platforms such as WhatsApp to power their interactions with students. With over two billion users globally, the chat app is the world’s most popular messaging platform, with 74% of Gen Z users signed up to it. Critically, this deep penetration means education providers can leverage a channel that many students already congregate on and offer a range of chat- and notification-based digital services whose immediacy and personalisation are ideal for servicing a mobile-native generation.

1. Engaging prospective students on WhatsApp

Phone calls, websites and emails are falling out of favour with Gen Z as they hunt for faster, friction-free responses to their queries and searches. This explains why email open rates are 21%, while WhatsApp rates are 99%, with messages typically opened within five minutes.

Such accessibility is something that forward-thinking education providers are already taking advantage of. For instance, EF International Language Campuses, the global education company with over 600 schools and offices serving both students and professionals, uses WhatsApp “to reach our target audience when they are the most receptive.” Subsequently, the educator enjoys a two-times higher response rate on WhatsApp and a three-times higher conversion — requesting a brochure and then registering for an EF program— compared to phone calls.

2. ‘WhatsApp’ for applications and enrolment

The messaging platform can serve both students and educators across the entire acquisition journey, from prospects to enrolment. For instance, live agents or inexpensive chatbots can answer typical lead queries about an educational institution and its offerings, using text, images, PDFs and video to provide information on the curriculum.

Bots can be designed to ask the prospective student pertinent questions, automating the entire process, and creating more efficient lead qualifying at a reduced cost. Application friction can also be minimised by offering the student timely updates and notifications delivered in-app, so they never feel left ‘out of the loop.’ Even registration and enrolment can be simplified by enabling students to upload critical documentation (in the form of images or PDFs, for instance), all within WhatsApp, leveraging the platform’s end-to-end encryption.

3. Support students throughout their learning journey
  • Student Engagement

Ensuring all learning, even online courses, retains a ‘human touch’ is vital in education. Student life away from the classroom can be complemented by WhatsApp, enabling educators to push out status updates on up-and-coming events such as guest lectures, webinars, social gatherings and major projects.

  • Delivering lessons

If classes or lectures in a physical location are disrupted, WhatsApp can step in temporarily and offer virtual classes supported by text, video and audio messaging.

From Bhutan and the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and India, the messaging platform has already been employed to hold lessons during the pandemic. For instance, in India, the edtech social enterprise ConveGenius has launched an at-home learning programme over WhatsApp to ensure children keep learning during the pandemic. The company reached five million active users in India, across some of the country’s most remote parts, while exchanging nearly 10 million daily messages.

  • Support services

WhatsApp can be used to service many aspects of a student’s academic and social life, from access to advisors or counsellors to club chats and exam results. For instance, Oxfordcaps provides housing and accommodation solutions to students in Singapore and India.

The company uses WhatsApp to deliver faster onboarding for its Gen Z clients, offering complete support via documentation, instant chat and maps. This helps reduce the stress typically associated with moving to new accommodation in a city or location unfamiliar to a student.

  • Building relations

Online educators rely on the messaging platform to forge and retain connections with customers. For instance, PlayKids, the global education platform for children, has capabilities that can be used to message children’s families. Messaging includes status updates on ordered items, additional information about new products in the store, and even stories delivered to caregivers to read to their children at bedtime.

Critically, messages are also sent to reconnect with inactive users. This approach has seen a 90% decrease in the number of lapsed subscribers and a 66% decrease in time to reactivate lapsed subscriptions compared to email and phone.

A roadmap for renewing digital conversations

While WhatsApp doesn’t represent a magic bullet for the challenges facing the education sector as it adjusts to the ‘new normal’, the platform offers a significant opportunity to reach out and engage with students on a channel they know, like and trust.


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