Avoiding Kerplunk: How can UK universities use communications to navigate a highly precarious situation?

The UK punches above its weight in the global higher education sector, with 28 of the world’s Top 200 universities.

While those universities are fighting coronavirus, they are facing a challenge to survive its impacts.

As complex and large organisations, it can be hard for universities to tell their story well. How do they cut through the noise and persuade their stakeholders to back them now, when they’re needed the most?

Tackling coronavirus

In the face of a crisis, universities are a national asset. Locally they are helping communities to navigate uncertain times while delivering thousands of skilled healthcare professionals into the NHS.

At national level, they’re providing vital scientific support and shaping the policy response. Internationally, universities such as UCL have made life-saving innovation available globally, while Oxford and Imperial are two of the very first to have a potential vaccine in clinical trials. If either succeeds, the UK’s academic and research excellence will have helped save millions and ensured that the global economy can restart, an incalculably valuable national treasure.

A unique and complex system

While universities are national assets, they are complex institutions unlike any other.

In normal times, they compete to deliver core national services like teaching the UK’s 1.9 million domestic students and carrying out advanced research, despite those services being funded by Government below their true cost. Conscious of an ‘Ivory Tower’ image, universities work with communities, charities and businesses so they benefit too.

Those services are ‘subsidised’ by well-paying international students, and for a select few universities, generating improved grants and revenues from the commercialisation of research.

Everyone – researchers, industry, government, students – expects universities to have outstanding facilities and staff, so they invest substantially in improvements and expansion. Like a commercial business, much of that investment is paid for by forecasts of planned growth.

A challenging situation

In ‘Kerplunk’, a game where straws stop marbles from plummeting, you remove straws one by one until the loser takes out the load bearing straw. Coronavirus has pulled out all higher education’s straws at once.

University campuses are closed, so in-person teaching is not possible. Instead, universities have rapidly shifted to online teaching and testing, which doesn’t easily work for courses that require lab time or experimentation. While existing students may adapt out of necessity, a university degree could be a tough sell to the 2020/21 intake who may consider a gap year instead.

Expensive research projects years in the making are indefinitely paused, equipment is unavailable, and experiments need to be started from scratch. Important collaborators and funders, like the NHS, are focusing on essential tasks only. New findings and inventions will take longer to be commercialised or expanded upon, reducing investment and career progression.

With travel restrictions in place and life in Britain deeply disrupted, prospective international students will consider whether the UK is a sensible destination. Businesses may hold off on funding new ideas, focusing on returning to normal instead.

There is a real risk that universities may go bust. If that happens, we face losing key national assets when they’re needed most.

As the former Universities Minister Lord Willets put it, the long-term consequence could be that people who want to learn cannot, that the best and brightest do not come to Britain, and years of work to better understand the world around us and use that knowledge to make life better goes elsewhere, because we lack the funding and universities to make it happen.

And, ultimately, we would be much less prepared for the next global crisis.

So where now?

Like every sector, higher education will need innovation and financial and policy intervention to weather the storm. Despite this, the Government appears to be wavering on a sectoral bail-out, with some departments convinced and others less so.

To attract students – domestic and international – they will need confidence in the continued excellence of the brand. Students expect quality, and the ‘Virtual Campus’ must move through trial and error quickly, or reputations that took decades to build will be lost in weeks. International families considering the investment of a lifetime need confidence the environment is safe and provides an excellent education worth the money.

The backing of those two distinct audiences, Government and potential students, will hold the key to the future of the sector.

Communicating with confidence

To persuade new students and government to back them, universities must identify their concerns, craft a compelling narrative, and be backed by passionate advocates.

Universities have risen to the coronavirus challenge. To be recognised for that, they must ensure their stakeholders – government, businesses, alumni, local communities and staff – discover that via pro-active communications and understand the difference they made. Students and staff who feel that the university looked after them in challenging circumstances can become great advocates, and this is where great internal communications shine.

To convince the next intake of students, universities must tackle their anxieties head on. Research and insight can identify the concerns that are deterring applications, and empower universities to show how they’re overcoming those problems.

The sector’s enormity and complexity can make it challenging to stand out to Government, which is a problem when every university has unique problems. Informing government relations approaches with data, research and intelligence will empower universities to get to the heart of the problem, find the right decision makers, tell a story with cut-through and make the right ask of them.

The coming weeks and months will be vital for the UK’s universities. They have stepped up to save lives globally, and with the right support, can help drive the national and global recovery from coronavirus too.

Visit Madano's COVID-19 communications hub here for more content on successfully managing communications in these challenging times.