When it comes to how a university communicates with its students, arguably the most important concept is ‘the right message at the right time’. This involves not only understanding how students want to be communicated with but also when. Universities can have the impulse to barrage students with absolutely everything they need to know at the beginning of a semester, but often that will end up unread or at least not really taken in, for there’s only so much information someone can process at once.
Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, spoke to Samantha Bartlett, Chief Learner Experience Officer at Federation University Australia in Melbourne, Australia, about how getting communications right can ultimately prove invaluable in improving the entire student journey.
I spent most of my career in corporate roles, specialising in customer strategy and experience, so I have a Bachelor of Behavioural Science and a Masters in Marketing. My jobs have always involved creating a very customer-centric culture. But eight years ago, I made a deliberate decision to go into more purposeful sorts of sectors. Higher education (HE) always interested me because of its complexity and the diversity of its students. It’s a sector going through quite significant change and transformation in Australia, and whilst in some aspects it’s a little behind, in other ways it can be quite cutting edge in terms of things like technology, etc. I feel like I found my dream job because of the remit that it offers, that challenge of creating interest and demand, getting students in the door, and then ensuring that they make it through successfully and ultimately graduate.
We obviously take student safety very seriously. First and foremost, understanding and asking students what they need and want is a critical pillar in my portfolio. Therefore, we have a whole range of programs for getting feedback so we can create the right interventions, and use the insight to mobilise cultural change and focus on where we should be investing our time and effort. My research has uncovered that our students and people are looking for connection, a sense of community and control. With that in mind, how we craft our communications to students is really embedded in that. Australian universities are only just starting to embrace the methodology of ‘the right message at the right time’, making sure that you don’t bombard the students with information that may not all be relevant to them at once or at all, depending on who they are. We want to create a real sense of personalisation to know who the student is and what they need so we can fulfil that through communications, programs, and the right support.
We’re building that capability now through our marketing and promotion platform. Using data to make sure we’re landing the right messages, because you don’t want your students to be opting out. Data can tell us things like, are they opening emails? How do they prefer to be communicated with? So we use a mixture of phone, in-person, SMS, and email but making sure it’s designed with intent.
One thing I noticed when I arrived at the university is we had a wide range of different physical places for students to go ask questions. We’re in the process of collapsing that down to a single place so we don’t have to send students around to different faculties to get the answers they need.
Our cohort is a bit unique. We have a high proportion of students who are mature age, female, often have carer duties, and we have more first-in-family students than any other university in Australia. So we need to support students who are balancing work, study, and parenthood. So we offer childcare facilities on campus. We have flexible course delivery options. And we also really dig into special consideration and reasonable adjustments relating to caring and caregiving, cultural obligations, and health challenges. We also have quite a high proportion of students with disabilities compared to other universities. From a health and wellbeing perspective, we actually take a ‘whole student’ approach: emotional, social, physical, and spiritual. For spiritual, we offer mindfulness activities. We also have lots of social activities, with over 270 events a year. And recently, we reintroduced a peer mentor program. People who participated were significantly more likely to stay past the first six weeks, which is quite a risky time for new students to opt-out.
We’re really good at doing lots of little trials. If you think about innovation, it’s about starting small in scale, and my team and I are very good at the ideation piece of the innovation triangle. We also have lots of students working for us, so we’re never short on good ideas. It’s about picking the right ones and then trialling them in a way that actually doesn’t take huge amounts of resources or budget. It’s always important to lead with data, which we get from the students. Student voice is really important.
I’ve always been a strong advocate of women mentoring women and supporting them in their career. There’s still a great deal of disparity in Australia regarding incomes and the level of retirement savings for women. Many women are disadvantaged financially due to various decisions, marriage breakdown, etc. The advice I was given and live by is to make sure you always look after your own financial security as a woman, and never give that up or put that in the hands of someone else.