It’s official: California Institute of Technology (Caltech) is the best university in the world, according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. This is good news for science and engineering high achievers and for the United States. For those who wish to study in Britain, however, the news is not quite so good.
The recent publication of the THE league table shows that the UK could be losing ground internationally, with a number of our institutions failing to make the Top 200 list this year for the first time. Together with the government’s removal of the cap on student numbers, it has never been more important to prioritise student attraction and universities must take every opportunity to make a good first impression.
Although they are by no means the only way to establish the relative merits of each university, as the majority of prospective students conduct their initial research on institutions and courses online, such league tables are undeniably important. They tell us how universities compare on issues like staff to student ratios, spend per student and degree completion. What they do not tell us, however, is what it is actually like to study there.
Websites provide a great deal of relevant information about facilities and courses but, out of necessity, tend to generalise experience rather than personalise it. This is where social media comes in. Admiral conducted a detailed analysis of the social media profiles of British universities earlier this year in the SociaLIGHT HE Survey. The verdict? Social media’s importance cannot be disregarded, but we had to conclude that the sector’s uptake is mixed.
The spectrum went from the very good to the non-existent, with the vast majority finding themselves somewhere in the middle ground. This is a mistake. Social media has a degree of informality that encourages people to engage and share experience. It is an excellent way to find out, first hand, what students really think of their courses, residence and overall experience at a given university.
It does encourage people to engage and share their experience but, on the downside, it will not all be good. Social media provides a forum for students to express their personal views and opinions and sometimes these will not be accurate or fair. But it is still much better to be active on social media, to be able to listen to concerns, give voice to alternative perspectives and counter negative comments. It is important that the views of the contented majority are not overshadowed by the rants of the disaffected minority. That way, a balanced picture can be presented while encouraging current staff and students to be involved.
The human dimension
Whether positive or negative, there is no denying that social media provides a human dimension to add to the bare facts presented by league tables. For students from overseas it is often the only informal personal contact they can have with an institution before making their decision and it is therefore, in an effective sense, almost as important as an official prospectus or website.
In higher education, a social media strategy should prioritise engagement with ordinary students; not just those who have strong views to express. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest and Snapchat can involve the whole university in a variety of different ways. A video clip of a rock concert or a charity fun run; a blog about Freshers’ Week; a department Twitter feed detailing a series of guest lectures. Bit by bit, post by post, these build up an accurate picture of university life and provide the best and most engaging university prospectus. Ever.