94% of UK universities Tweeted about COVID-19 prior to first national lockdown

Researchers from London South Bank University and the University of Essex conducted a study into the sector’s monthly Tweet patterns between January and May 2020

Joint research by London South Bank University (LSBU) and the University of Essex has revealed that 94% of UK universities Tweeted about COVID-19 before the first national lockdown was enforced last March.

The new study, University communication and social media during the COVID-19 pandemic, was conducted between January and May 2020, drawing on data from verified university Twitter accounts that were offering a mix of both face-to-face and online teaching during that time.

According to the findings, 148 of a total 158 institutions were using Twitter to communicate about the pandemic ahead of March last year. The universities generally turned to the social platform to support proactive crisis communications, as well as to raise awareness and provide advice to staff and students throughout the continuing crisis.

Through an analysis of monthly Tweet patterns, researchers found that 41 universities Tweeted about the pandemic for the first time in January last year; 25 Tweeted for the first time in February 2020; while 148 posted their first Tweet last March.

Universities with large student bodies were more likely to Tweet sooner than their smaller counterparts, but they didn’t introduce coronavirus-related webpages faster than other universities, according to HESA data. HESA’s figures were used to ‘correlate’ student numbers with the dates of Tweets and financial reserves. Variables obtained via HESA include: total enrolment, proportion of income tuition, total reserves, public engagement, buildings per capita, and unrestricted reserves.

“By taking positive action at the start of the crisis and initiating communication with their staff and students, universities were confirming their key role as public sources of trust” – Dr Barbara Czarnecka, LSBU

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London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine was the first UK university to Tweet about the COVID-19 outbreak (9 January), followed by the University of Greenwich (21 January) and then Kingston University (23 January). Subsequently, 11 universities followed suit one day after Kingston on 24 January. By the end of the month, a total of 41 universities had referenced the pandemic on their Twitter feeds, usually either to offer advice on what to do if staff or students were diagnosed with the virus, or to confirm that their institution had not yet knowingly had any cases.

On 6 March, 18 universities Tweeted about coronavirus for the first time – the highest number to Tweet on a single day up until that date.

By 20 March, once the first national lockdown was underway and ‘stay at home’ orders were announced, 10 universities had still not Tweeted about COVID-19 at all.

“At a time when the UK government was relatively slow to act at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in the UK, universities were forced to take matters into their own hands,” said Dr Barbara Czarnecka, associate professor of marketing at LSBU and co-author of the study.

“Our research shows that around 94% of UK universities Tweeted about COVID-19 before the first national lockdown was announced in March 2020. By taking positive action at the start of the crisis and initiating communication with their staff and students, universities were confirming their key role as public sources of trust.”


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