How universities are using the web to attract new students

By Gareth Evans
From next month, students themselves will offset reductions to core university budgets by paying up to £9,000-a-year for their courses. Expectations are high and if they are forking out up to £27,000 for their university education, learners will demand a steady job in return.

Choosing the right university could make all the difference and admissions officers across the country are doing everything they can to pin their colours to the mast. Not for the first time, the internet is revolutionising the way learners access information and universities are having to adapt to the needs of the younger generation.

The explosion of social networking has not gone unnoticed and recruitment teams are increasingly turning to Twitter and Facebook to sell their services. One of the biggest developments has in recent years been the introduction of “virtual open days”, designed for students who might not otherwise make it onto campus.

In their simplest form, virtual open days can be accessed from anywhere at any given time and include pre-filmed videos of courses, halls and nightlife. Presented by staff and students, they give prospective learners an insight into university life without the inconvenience of travelling to and from its host town or city.

Dr Hywel Davies, director of recruitment and admissions at Aberystwyth University, said it is important institutions embrace technology.

“People are taking more and more advantage of it because it’s expensive to go to open days,” he said.

“Undergraduates can apply to up to six universities, so if you went all over the country visiting them it would end up costing a lot. The focus is very much on providing the experience of an open day and feedback has been very positive.

“Virtual open days give you a flavour of Aber, but if they are in a position to do so, I would still recommend students come and see us on our real open days. We’re in such a beautiful part of the world, nothing beats seeing the place itself.”

Dr Davies said the advent of higher tuition fees meant parents were taking more of an interest in university open days.

He added: “The £9,000 [fee] has focused their minds. They want their kids to make the best choice and are stakeholders, offering the students financial support. It’s as much in their interests as it is their son’s and daughter’s.”

Wrexham’s Glyndwr University was one of the first in Wales to adopt the virtual open day, which are proving popular with students overseas. As well as its static material, Glyndwr runs interactive web chats to give students the chance to speak to lecturers from the comfort of their own homes.

Media communications manager Steve Graves said virtual open days were now a key part of the university’s annual recruitment events calendar.

“There is so much new technology available to universities to engage with students and we wanted to exploit this by reaching out to those who might not be able to attend traditional open days,” he said.

“While there can be no substitute for the face-to-face contact of an open day on one of our campuses, the big advantage of online open days is their flexibility, low cost and interactivity. It also allows us to bring the Wrexham Campus to life as much as possible for people hundreds of miles away.

“We can upload with ease images of facilities or videos of our students at work around the university, or of course leaders speaking about their subject area. As the internet is now the main source of information, we can direct students to relevant websites instantly.

“Attendance has been increasing with each virtual open day that we’ve held, particularly from potential overseas students, demonstrating the value of technological advances for universities in terms of their student recruitment activities. The amount of audio-visual content which the university is generating is increasing all the time.”

David Roylance, head of undergraduate recruitment at Cardiff University, said it was important for universities to use social media given its growing popularity amongst teenagers.

“There’s a lot of scope there and Facebook and Twitter are key to attracting the sixth-form target audience,” he said.

“Our prospectuses are still a very important recruitment tool for the university, but the internet has come along and that’s important as well. Social media and the web are additional channels we can communicate with.

“Students really appreciate the opportunity to find out what current students think and during the delivery of our actual open days, they can tweet questions and get them answered while they’re walking around campus.”

But despite the advance in technology, Mr Roylance said students still prefer to see the university and its facilities for themselves.

“One of the biggest reasons is that they’re paying £9,000 tuition fees and really want to see it’s right for them before they go,” he said.

“Students are asking a lot more questions about their course and what they do will after, in terms of careers and future employability. In fact, we have had an increase in requests for open days and the university responded by having an additional day in July. It was fully booked and there were 2,500 people on campus.” (Wales Online)

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