How leading universities are motivating first-years for an unprecedented start of term

Posted by Tribal Group

Starting university life is challenging at the best of times. From meeting new people, to moving away from home (likely for the first time), and discovering a new way of learning… it’s not unusual for students to feel apprehensive about what lies ahead. Throw Covid-19 into that mix and the new challenge becomes even more overwhelming. With so much uncertainty and lack of clarity on what the future holds, there has never been a more important time for universities to provide a robust student support and welfare service, especially to those first year students who will be joining the university in the near future.

There are great challenges ahead for universities – but whilst we all navigate our way through this unprecedented time, here are a few ideas to ensure your first-year students feel supported from day one.

#1 Keep communication open – FAQs are your new best friend

Open lines of communication are always important – and never more so than now than in the wake of a global pandemic. There will be many questions and uncertainty around what the academic year will now look like, how accommodation will be impacted, what new rules and safeguarding procedures have been put into place by the university to protect students etc. You need to help your students feel safe, and alleviating any worries and concerns is very important. Any form of online interaction gives applicants, offer holders and prospective students a sense that they can raise their questions or concerns and get an answer straight away. 

Having a live knowledge base of answers to typical questions will be vital. Ensure these FAQs are right up to date and easily accessible via your website or student portal, to all students who will be joining the university

Here are some suggestions for new questions to include:

  • What does Freshers’ Week or Orientation Week look like now?
  • How can I meet my fellow students?
  • What will happen to my accommodation if I don’t physically start at University until later in the year?
  • Will I get a reduction in fees due to the rules in place because of coronavirus?
  • What additional support is being provided for additional needs students during the run up to September 2020 and beyond?

Durham University in the UK, for example, are taking this facility a step further by also providing prospective students with an enquiry form to ask any questions, if they are unable to find what they are looking for on the website/portal or the FAQs. Durham’s CRM provides a quick way for the institution to send links to FAQs and webpages etc. that provide extra information around the issues raised. The Student Support and Welfare Team can also add students who have submitted a form to marketing lists, and based on the questions that have been raised, they can ensure that a constant communication channel is established and the team can provide the student with relevant information at the appropriate time, based on who they are and the answers/support they are seeking.

#2 Engage with Marketing Campaigns – start building those relationships now!

Building on the previous point, there is no time like the present to start nurturing relationships with your new cohort of students – via email and social posting in new starter social groups etc. Make visible your plan of action to establish and support a ‘new norm’, however temporary it might be. Set out a series of marketing communications that proactively engage new students at the start of the semester:

  • Signposting useful FAQs
  • Providing additional resources to support a smooth enrolment
  • Inviting them to join social groups with other new starters
  • Anything to support a positive university experience!

Measuring and analysing student engagement during the lead up to the enrolment period is essential to allow you to refine your communications and activity and take proactive steps to ensure each and every student ‘shows up’ at the start of the academic year, even if this initially is just virtually. There are many reports that can be generated off the back of an email campaign that can provide useful engagement insights.

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#3 Provide a variety of multi-channel support options  - embrace Live Chat!

FAQs, emails and forms are important. But your new students will welcome the opportunity to speak to a member of university staff directly as they seek to gain clarification or discuss any concerns regarding starting university during this challenging time.

If Live Chat is a viable option to your institution, it’s certainly worth offering, as it’s a popular channel of direct communication for students. If human management of Live Chats isn’t possible, you may want to consider introducing chat bots or virtual agents to provide this channel. (A chatbot is an artificial intelligence (AI) software that can simulate a natural human conversation, which can interpret and process a student’s words or phrases, providing an instant pre-set answer – perfect for directing students to those popular FAQs!)

The University of Bristol in the UK, for example, provides a virtual chat function using pre-created chat messages that enables the Student Welfare Team to provide quick feedback to students. The team can also convert the virtual chat into a case in the CRM if further information is required to answer the question.

#4 Arrange and host events - build engagement and a safe place to ask questions!

Although face-to-face events are currently off the table, there is nothing stopping universities from hosting virtual events targeted at new students. Not only does it provide your students with an opportunity to ask questions and tackle any concerns but it also provides an opportunity for the university to establish the engagement rates of its new first year students and reach out to those who need further nurturing. Hosting additional workshops and tailored events to support those who require a little extra support during this challenging time, is another great way to ensure every student feels supported during their life at university. 

Durham University, for example has been hosting virtual Applicant Days, and the number of applicants attending these has been high. The university encourages students to use their video chat windows to post questions to get their enquiries answered. 

Another example from Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, which already hosts a number of online events and is looking to offer more events virtually during this time, is to enable prospective students to book one on one appointments with its Student Support and Welfare teams to discuss disabilities, extra learning needs or finance.

Your university could also consider virtual ‘drop in’ sessions, inviting prospective students to join and get any information they need and speak to someone about any issues they may have. 

#5 Offer extra support for those with underlying illnesses or disabilities

The University of Bristol provides a portal form, which lets students and offer holders, inform the university of any disabilities they have or support they require from the university. Once the form has been completed and submitted, the Student Welfare team can then assess what recommended adjustments they will make for the offer holder or returning student – such as extra time during exams, or extra support from their personal tutor. The Student Welfare team then communicates with the internal university teams to let them know how to prepare for the new offer holder or current student when they join or return to the university. This portal form is sent to anyone who receives an offer, and can be completed at any time on the student journey, so for asthma sufferers for example, they may now wish to submit a form to request help with online lectures or lecture notes, if they need to ‘shield’ as a result of Covid-19.

#6 Beyond enrolment – making sure students are supported in Freshers Week and beyond!

This period since March has been very unsettling for prospective students. A recent Wonkhe article concluded: “What is uncertain is how [this]… is going to impact on the wellbeing of our incoming students and our ability to help them confidently settle into their studies.” The panic about what would happen regarding end of year results such as GCSEs, A Levels and High School Certificates was evident across social media as news of lockdown broke, and huge swathes of students voiced their concerns about exams, confirmation and clearance procedures. Monitoring the experience and progression of students who have been accepted on mock results or predicted grades will be vital – not only help them but also to feed into the current UK admissions debate.

Tribal customers are also planning new ways to utilise their Engage App to welcome new students to their university, help them interact socially with other new starters, engage with course content right from the start, and support each other with ongoing class activities and self-learning. The app enables the universities to provide relevant information to each student’s fingertips, personalised to their timetable and their lifestyle. With secure social networking it also enables staff and students to connect, communicate and collaborate with each other safely and securely. So it’s clear to see why we, along with many market analysts, predict the adoption rate for apps that enable this sort of engagement to soar in the years ahead!

If you’ve found these hints and tips useful, our next blog shares ideas on how to welcome students in year 2 and above, back to a (potentially) virtual campus in September.




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