Leveraging digital platforms to meet student recruitment objectives during COVID-19 lockdown

A digital-first strategy could be an answer to the coronavirus pandemic, says Harjiv Singh, founder and CEO of BrainGain Global

Over the past couple of years, we have seen how maturing technologies have transformed industry after industry. However, the wide-reaching economic implications and social distancing measures of the coronavirus threat have triggered a critical need for accelerated digital transformation. As we enter a ‘new normal’ where business processes move to a virtual environment, higher education cannot afford to fall behind.

Adopting a digital-first strategy is the only way to future-proof operating models, navigate the current challenge and retain a competitive edge once we reach the other side. What’s worrying university boards right now is that they should be deep into the recruitment process to fill places for the coming academic year, commencing in October, but cannot do so in their usual way. Digital technology offers a unique means of ensuring they still manage to meet recruitment deadlines.

Optimising talent recruitment and cost savings

Recruitment of international students was already a lengthy, costly process, undertaken by representatives flying countless miles to conduct their searches in various cities. Apart from the time and expense, they were not guaranteed to reach the right applicants during these short visits, and couldn’t go to more than three or four cities at most.

It’s also an outdated approach. The way we live is shifting and the new generation of students expect greater accessibility to information, faster than ever before. Today’s students – Generation Zs and millennials – demand more flexibility and expect to find whatever they need via an app on their mobile phones. Recruiters are increasingly seeing the advantage of interacting with a larger audience that includes teachers, prospective students and their parents.

It’s no secret that UK universities struggle with a heavy funding shortfall. The Augar review, published last year, highlighted that almost a quarter of UK universities had a deficit. In order to redress the balance, many rely on attracting more overseas students and the accompanying higher fees. This addressable market holds vast potential, as the UK is the second most popular destination for international students, after the U.S. Overseas students make up almost 20% of the country’s total student population, with a large proportion being recruited in China and India, but current travel restrictions are clearly posing a substantial hurdle to reaching them.

Harnessing edtech tools can help universities find the right cohort of students globally and much more efficiently. They can do so virtually, recruiting in hundreds of cities simultaneously to drive considerable traffic; and this is possible at a much lower cost than previously seen, a boon in light of currently stretched recruitment budgets.

Innovation can make student recruitment… smarter

Artificial intelligence, machine learning, predictive analytics and the prevalence of cloud technology are already enabling companies to customise their services and break down barriers to the global stage. Universities can benefit in the same way, without the need to install expensive software systems or completely overhaul their existing IT capabilities.

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They can do so by tapping into ready-made, intelligent SaaS-enabled infrastructure to open up access to a worldwide student audience. These software providers can facilitate seamless, data insight-driven profile matchmaking, offering personalised suggestions that are the best fit for both universities and students in real-time. They also offer the scalability and processing power to deal with huge data pools.

By deploying next-generation solutions, universities can connect with students in a more meaningful way than before. Through an AI-backed platform and data-led insights, they can match applicants to courses based on specific needs, interests, skills and objectives.

Best of all, the whole recruitment and application process can now be automated, thanks to advancements in cognitive technologies, thereby reducing manual effort, inaccuracies and costs. The value proposition is compelling – today’s analytics and machine learning technology means that we can tap into data and set up algorithms in ways that were not possible just a few years ago.

As AI and machine learning continue to evolve, they offer an unprecedented level of understanding and expertise into the end user, providing a faster and better quality service. For universities, having such an in-depth view of candidates’ profiles and requirements will affect how they recruit students and structure syllabuses going forward.

Continuation of learning

Adopting a tech-backed model also acts as a hedge against macro curveballs such as the pandemic crisis, whose impact on higher education can be truly crippling. Not only through the potentially millions lost due to overseas students being stranded and unable to undertake their studies, but also as a result of UK universities cancelling all in-person classes.

These precautionary measures are important and necessary but there are ways to counter their disruptive effect on learning. By ‘going digital’, universities can maintain the vital connection with students during this time through remote learning (be it through video seminars, multimedia, or cloud-based, interactive e-learning solutions).

As conferences and large-scale events are also being cancelled and postponed, a SaaS platform can guarantee the continuation of knowledge transfer and research. It allows universities to keep recruiting without the need to travel abroad to deliver presentations, and prospective students to continue to research and apply for courses.

Powering ahead

Every crisis brings the chance to make positive changes to adapt to the new environment – to not only survive but to emerge stronger. Universities now have the opportunity to enter the digital age of recruitment. There’s tremendous potential for higher education to become a serious player in the global marketplace. In the medium term, I also envisage that the personalisation afforded by digital technologies can support universities in boosting their rankings in international league table, a vital marker of performance.

The edtech movement will only accelerate. For universities struggling in the current climate, the key is to view technology as an opportunity to reach much higher than they have previously. And they don’t need a significant budget to start doing so immediately.

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