Here in the higher education space, we’re used to adapting to new ideas and innovations. However, unexpected events can force us to adapt to new ideas quicker than we would like. 

Today, we’re faced with the worst pandemic for generations. The consequences of the current crisis have yet to be seen in full, but what we can say for certain is: higher education institutions must at least partly restructure to become a virtual business, not least to keep your students in lessons but also to keep up with the industry as the market shifts.

In the face of uncertainty and social restrictions, you need to embrace remote teaching to remain a respected organisation. It may be a crisis-driven experiment, but it’s not a new concept. Universities around the world have been turning to virtual teaching in order to engage international audiences and working professionals. Today, though, virtual learning could be integral to the survival of your institution.

And as with any change to your institution, brand communications will be key to ensuring the ultimate success of online courses. This week, we’re exploring some of the ways institutions are dealing with this sudden shift. Innovation is always an opportunity to strengthen your brand, no matter how dramatic the catalyst might be.

Why is it critical to make the move to virtual learning?

Just how long social distancing measures will stay in place is anybody’s guess, but most forecasts suggest we can expect to remain mostly indoors for at least a few months. All industries, higher education included, must now progress with the task of switching to a virtual business model just to survive the coming weeks. It’s clear that delivering education through online platforms is now a necessity.

It’s certainly not the only reason for doing so, however. Online learning is the new normal and the vast majority of universities at least support their on-campus curriculums with digital platforms. Digital learning makes a dramatic impact in accessibility and previously untapped audiences may be able to take advantage of the learning opportunities you provide. Busy professionals, working parents and international students can all get access to digital educational opportunities that were previously out of reach.

Build a strategy grounded in virtual learning

It’s entirely possible that some higher education institutions and related businesses won’t weather the current crisis. Now, the race is on to find out which universities will keep their name and reputation intact and which will find themselves falling behind.

Now is the time to build your communications strategy to reinforce your digital learning propositions. It’s usually best to start close to home, building an internal brand comms strategy that keeps current students in the loop. Then, you can start to expand your remit to show your institution is innovating to meet the crisis. Finally, as your online learning offerings become more substantial, consider working them into your core marketing messages. 

Access changes everything

Businesses may have come to a grinding halt, but the world is still spinning, and there will be a future. Today’s young adults can’t simply turn their back on higher education due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They need to start preparing for a new world of work – one that could be drastically changed to favour digital working.

As an institution, you need to reflect the world your students will be entering. That means greater access to education for potential students around the world. It also means a larger talent pool, more competition and more networking opportunities. There are also costs, too. Make sure your brand communications capture just how much of an impact these changes are going to have on your target audience. Suddenly, your brand is globally significant. 

King’s College London are doing a great job of this with their globally orientated comms:

‘Wherever you are in the world, we are here and we are thinking of you.’”

Emphasise your history of innovation

As a university, providing a high standard of education to your students is your primary objective. Innovation is – and has always been – a crucial part of delivering that experience. If your institution has been around for some time, you’ll already have a history of making changes to provide the best educational outcomes. 

Tap into your university’s legacy to enhance your brand communications and reassure students. Remember that if the perceived standard of education falls, your reputation will gradually diminish, enabling other institutions to fill the void. Make sure your brand communications emphasise the fact that you’ve innovated with great success before. It’s vital that both current and prospective students know that their prospects won’t be affected by the change.

Let’s look at some more examples

Some of the best-known universities have already unveiled digital programmes intended not just to keep them open for business, but also to enhance the learning and teaching experience for everyone. By eliminating face-to-face meetings, these universities are also contributing to stopping the spread of the virus.

Manchester Metropolitan University, the University of Durham and King’s College London have all announced they will be delivering lessons digitally instead of face-to-face teaching. Those universities revealed their plans around the time that several medical schools, including the one at Cambridge University, announced plans to curtail public events, delay exams and pause teaching.

The London School of Economics (LSE) has one of the most ambitious plans for digitalisation. It has stated that all postgraduate and undergraduate courses will be delivered online for the remainder of the academic year. The LSE along with King’s College London are looking to the digital sphere for alternative examination methods to temporarily stop in-person exams.

Restructuring your university into a virtual business will come with challenges, but none severe enough to prevent you from remaining a competitive institution that delivers a high standard of education. Remember, every institution is fighting this fight right now. You’ve got just as much chance as anyone else to gain ground.

For more strategies on branding and communications during a crisis, drop us a line here at The Brand Education. We’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how our partners can make the best of this tough situation.