Our Insights

New Needs, New Expectations: Online Student Acquisition Post-COVID-19

10 minute read
Post by
Jason Hayes - Executive Client Advisor

As a recent “COVID graduate” turned Client Advisor, I’ve witnessed first-hand how the pandemic has affected the Higher Learning experience for both current students and alumni. Completing a degree without meeting classmates, starting a job without meeting co-workers – not what I imagined when I embarked upon my Higher Learning journey. However, the next wave of students has had to endure another unusual challenge: choosing a university without ever visiting it.

This challenge has seen the university digital landscape be elevated to a higher level of importance than ever before. The needs of prospective students have changed and universities have responded en masse. Our recent Higher Learning studies at Global Reviews have shed light into the many ways in which these needs have shifted, as well as the ways in which universities have responded.

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So, let’s take a look at some of COVID’s impacts, letter by letter…

*verbatims and data are taken from Global Reviews Digital Sales Effectiveness Q42021 and Compass Virtual Open Day Q3 2021 studies.

C: Competition breeds innovation

"I rely on the university’s website to find all the information I’m looking for such as application due dates, semester starting dates, tuition fees, subject or unit outlines etc.”

Not only has the pandemic impacted student acquisition, but domestic demand in Australia has been shrinking over the past few years (Times Higher Education, 2022). This combination has intensified the battle to stand out digitally, and universities across Australia have upped their games as a result. Since Q4 2019, the average benchmark score measuring the digital experience being offered by universities measured by Global Reviews has been steadily increasing.

This growth has been driven by a myriad off actors, including ‘Personalisation’. Its average score has risen from 30% to40% since 2019. This now places Higher Learning as the second leading industry we measure for ‘Personalisation’. More brands are beginning to recognise and recall different cohorts who visit their websites and are adapting their digital journeys accordingly.

O: Open Days Gone Virtual

“It gives you flexibility to be there and if certain situations don’t allow you to be there in person then you don’t miss out on the open day - (travel or sickness)”

Open Days are one of the biggest promotional tools that universities have had to adapt to remain competitive in student acquisition. No longer must prospects travel across country or overseas to explore their new campus. They can now do it from their own home with a cup of tea and slippers. As awareness of Virtual Open Days (VODs) has risen among prospects, demand has followed suit. From early in the pandemic (Q4 2020) to later on (Q3 2021), those who prefer to:

  • attend VODs only has risen 9%,
  • have the option of both onsite and/or VODs has risen 6%.
  • attend onsite open days only has fallen 10%.

Naturally, these numbers fluctuate depending on the type of student. For example, prospective international students have been big beneficiaries of VODs, and their preferred format reflects this (see below). Likewise, prospective postgrads have less interest in onsite open days only, likely due to the fact that campus lifestyle is less important to them having already enjoyed three/four years of partyi... studying.

V: Value for Money

“The economy feels uncertain so I don’t know if now is the best time to rack up a uni debt”

It’s not just car-owners feeling the pinch these days. Or renters for that matter. Or bill-payers. or… okay, deep breaths… so too are prospective students, who are expressing concerns over monetary factors that come with a university degree. Our Q3 2020 VOD study showed that:

  • 89%of Australian prospective students expressed concerns about the impact of COVID on their ability to get work experience with industry placements.
  • 87%showed concern over reduced job prospects brought about by economic downturn.
  • 85%were concerned over receiving less value for money due to universities’ adapted offering.

‘Return on investment’ factors, i.e. course prices and career opportunities stemming from the degree, are now some of the most sought-after information for prospects choosing a course. This is an oft over-looked element by many unis (partially due to industry regulations/potential ramifications),but some universities are now speaking to the student concerns around the uni cost of living.

I: Instant Help

“They have a live chat option down the bottom, so if I was stuck I would chat to someone”

As prospective students spend more time conducting online research for university selection, more problems will be encountered. As a result, students are becoming increasingly more open to online and instant communication. It was trending this way pre-pandemic, but has become even more extreme today. Web chat is now the most popular remedy for a prospect who encounters problems along their journey, followed by FAQs(below).

Virtual assistants and live chats have certain features which set them apart. For example, some may have operating hours displayed, others have links to FAQs. Along with these, it is important that chat is made available at the right moments. To abide by Nielson’s Golden Rules for Good Help, chat must be:

  • Available without interfering: Remain out of the way until a user needs it.
  • Succinct yet descriptive: Use plain language, not using more words than necessary.
  • Unintrusive: Make it easy to return to the original task once the issue is resolved.

As more and more prospects are expressing a desire for this instantaneous, self-serve form of help, universities must listen. Effective help at the right moment may be the difference between a conversion and an abandonment.

D: Don’t get left behind!

While some of COVID’s impacts have been temporary, e.g. more walks with coffees, shortage of toilet-paper (unrelated I think?);others won’t be leaving anytime soon, like remote working. COVID’s impact on student acquisition falls into the latter group. It is likely that much of the new and improved digital experience will be the expectation for prospects moving forward, pandemic or no pandemic. If universities don’t embrace that, they maybe left behind.


1.     https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/more-signs-domestic-demand-shrinking-australia

2.     https://www.nngroup.com/articles/pop-up-adaptive-help/

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