A report from CASE 2012 (a conference for higher education bods)

Whenever you intend to do something a little bit whizzy, technology inevitably fails. I had every intention of live blogging this year’s annual CASE conference but Cover it Live dealt me a body blow when it withdrew its freeness in favour of a business model. Great for them, not so great for me; I’d have to cough up money if I wanted to use it. Pah. To cut a long story short, no suitable solution could be found and here I am blogging the old fashioned way, after the event… so enjoy this less whizzy contribution…

Higher education bods from across the country and overseas descended on Birmingham for the biggest case conference of its kind so far, with more than 1,000 delegates from 34 countries. The aim? To share best practice, learnings, research, case studies and passion for the sector. Oh yes, and how universities are each tackling a new fees regime and a catalogue of changes to the future of higher education. It’s at this point I should point out that I work for The Open University, hence my attendance.

We arrived for middayish registration on Tuesday 28 August at Birmingham’s ICC and after a fork buffet – don’t make the mistake of asking for a knife as my colleague did – it all began with an opening by Mark Damazer, of St Peter’s College, Oxford, who described the creative mess that lies beneath every higher education institution.

And then the sessions began, each following a different strand – marketing, communications, alumni relations, fundraising, strategy or schools.

Here’s a short summary of some of the stuff going on in the sessions I attended… (and if you just want the quick Storify version, here it is!)

CASE conference 2012


What excites the public about universities?

Well, quite a lot actually, according to this panel of expert communicators and educationalists:  Jack Grimston, assistant news editor at The Sunday Times; Catherine Hearne, BBC Midlands; Colin Hughes, former associate editor at  The Guardian and now at Middlesex University;  Alice Roberts, author and professor, science presenter on BBC’s Coast and from the University of Birmingham; and chaired by Alistair Jarvis, University of Birmingham.

A news story is “something that makes our audience feel mad, sad or glad, “ said Catherine Hearne, emphasising the need for an emotional connection to a story. Her BBC Midlands patch covers 12 universities. So what makes people mad in HE? Answer: tuition fees. What makes people sad? Answer: the debt gained from university study. What makes people glad? Answer:  Great A Level results, new inventions and things that make people proud of their local area.

Colin Hughes said the most trafficked area of The Guardian site this time of year was league tables. What excites people is how good universities are; their reputations matter.

Alice Roberts – one of the presenters of the Open University/BBC co-production Coast – added: “Any civilised society in the world has had a university in it, going way back in time. Historically, they’re a very real strand in our society and they depend on the public being excited about them, people depend on universities. They’re not just repositories of knowledge they are generators of knowledge and that’s pretty exciting.”

Catherine Hearne then covered what should be obvious to most university press offices – make connections, keep in touch and give as much notice about as possible.

“It’s hard for communications staff to keep connected with people and tell their stories,  it’s a constant sweat,” added Colin. “It’s less evident that unis have great stories to tell about the public engagement of their student body, but it goes without saying that unis have good research stories. Students doing things in the public eye make great stories, which is massive positive about the student body; it’s not just about the academics.”

Someone in the audience then piped up and – using the word inherently much more than necessary – said universities were often behind the majority of news but never got the credit for their news stories. Sound familiar?

“There are lots of things going in at universities,” added Colin, “that people what to hear about, they are newsworthy. But people want to read miserable new stories, that’s the reality, and it’s harder to place positive news stories. Broadly, yes, bad, news sells, but that doesn’t mean positive university stories are not newsworthy.”


Improving student communications

It’s a fairly new-ish thing but since around 2009 – Nottingham possibly being the first – universities have been appointing student-specific communications officers. Better student comms can be traced back to the launch of the National Student Survey in 2005, explained Kathryn Jones, director of comms and marketing at Birmingham City University.

She said while engaging with students is much easier since the birth of social media, budgets, human resources and a lack of systems were the biggest barrier to effective communication with the student community.

HEA research shows that one in 12 students leaves after the first year of study and one third think of withdrawing. Those are pretty big numbers and stresses the point that good communication shouldn’t cease as soon as students sign up. They’re the best ambassadors universities have and they need to be nurtured for the whole of their student journey, and beyond. They need a sense of belonging at core level, subject level, faculty level and university level.

Kathryn then handed over Tom Thompson, a student comms officer at BCU, who’d conducted an audit across his university and made some recommendations about how students are communicated to from accepting an offer to study, right through to graduation. (Would it be mean of me at this point to point out, as a BCU student myself, I get lots of campus-related emails when I’m a distance learner based two hours away?)

So, BCU has 25,000 students in six faculties on eight campuses. Tom met with students, focus groups, Student Union groups, staff across faculties to gain a better insight into student communication. He hijacked student council meetings, society meetings and quiz nights to talk to core students but confessed it was hard to engage with the less engaged, i.e. those who aren’t active members of the student community.

Each department had a different way of communicating with its students – for some it was the noticeboard, for others pigeon holes on campus, eNewsletters for others. And Tom’s goal was to draw upon those ‘local’ solutions and implement a plan that worked for everyone. No mean feat, huh?

To cut a long story short, Tom has lots of ideas and is currently implementing them, including work on a new online magazine in which students will play an active role, producing content, designing the pages, marketing the site. This not only helps with communication, but also adds to the professional development of the students involved; it ticks a lot of boxes. And students can visit the site when they like, in order to get the university headlines, rather than being bombarded with often irrelevant messaging. One of BCU’s priorities is employability and this initiative will give students ‘real world’ experience.

Personalised content on the site was also mention and this is something I know a lot of us – either students or HE comms bods – would cry out for.

As part of his work, Tom has built an active community on LinkedIn for student comms officers – check it out!


Live social media demo

There’s not a lot I need to say about this as the presentation is online so check it out for yourself.


Communication, confidence and making internal politics work for you

If you don’t think universities are highly political and complex organisations, you probably need to take the cotton wool out of your ears.

Birkbeck University’s Pro Vice-Master for Student Experience Tricia King says: “It’s not what you do in universities, it’s how you make it happen. The challenge is getting permission to operate where you are.”

Here are her top tips…

  1. Know the value of a crisis, never waste it. (and if there isn’t a crisis try to invent one, harness something, take it to your boss and present them with an answer.)
  2.  Identify and work with powerful people. Power doesn’t always sit where the structure says it should sit. Don’t fight them, you’ll always lose, try and help them so they can help you. Also find a champion or advocate on your senior team who can help and support you. A lot of nodding and agreeing doesn’t mean things will change. Get the person in power to present your ideas and solutions as people will listen and it will make more of an impact. Universities are about power.
  3.  You have to be of the culture and in the culture to influence the culture. Dress appropriately for your audience; if meeting a donor then dress like them. At Birkbeck the team dresses down because that’s how their community dresses so it’s shorts in summer and jeans in winter. And remember not to use jargon when talking to them, you need to make yourself of that culture.
  4.  Buyer behaviour. We’re used to using language to suit the audience and engage in the right way, but we rarely use those skills internally. Use professional skill sets and turn them on your own staff, what type of people are they? What will work for them?
  5. Sometimes, just do it. It’s often easier to ask forgiveness than ask permission. Risky but sometimes you can get away with doing it.
  6. The importance of story. Good stories are key, you tell stories all the time and they’re powerful. Our job is about storytelling. Tell stories to different people for different purposes and tell those stories back to yourself. We’re so focussed on bitter business we forget what an extraordinary institution we are, that we’re carriers and pursuers of stories. Tell them internally and externally, and remember the emotional hook is at the heart of what we do.
  7.  Is this superhuman effort worth it? A good university will never be anything other than a creative mess and our job is to work in that chaos and not getting frightened by it. We’re creating the future and leaders of society, that’s what wedo everyday and they need what we do more than they ever have done, whether realise it or not. Don’t give up the fight, it’s not just you, it’s the way it is.

There is positively LOADS more to say on this conference, but if you’re not asleep by now you will be soon. For the full story in bitesize pieces, check out #ceac2012 on Twitter.

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