Protecting your 2021 prospects: what to do about negative press

Students in lockdown

Universities have demonstrated incredible resilience, innovation and creativity in the face of national and worldwide lockdowns. Communication strategies have been reinvented, Open Days have gone virtual and lessons are taking place online. Yet the national press is sowing the seeds of discontent with sensationalist headlines about mass dropouts, students being locked into their campuses, and students suffering from social isolation or mental health issues.

So how can you, as marketing and recruitment, protect your 2021 prospects? And is the threat of falling applicant and rising dropout numbers even real?

The majority of current students are saying they won’t leave university, but they are stressed

Check out our student poll: “Current uni students – are you thinking of dropping out of university?”

57.2% of current university students are planning to stick it out and 28.4% are considering dropping out*. However, just because some students are considering it doesn’t mean they actually will. User comments really show that, although many students are having a tough time, they also understand the grass might not be greener elsewhere:

“I still wouldn’t quit/defer now. I love my subject and although all this online stuff is a pain, things could be a lot worse so I feel like I can’t complain.”

I’m staying at uni for now, as I prefer my flatmates over staying at home (literally just me and my parents) but it depends what happens after the 4 weeks.”

“I’m seriously stressed, but I need a degree and I’ll still have to pay my loans. I like my degree, it’s just general stress+workload and lack of face to face support.”

I couldn’t move out completely in case in-person teaching started again next year, and I’d still have to pay the rent for my house share if I went home. I get on with my housemates…”

5 top tips for protecting your 2021 prospects from negative press

Here are our top tips to keep your 2021 numbers strong:

1) Change the narrative

Why not find some positive (or even neutral) student stories to reassure applicants that it’s not all bad? For example, you could get some current students who are enjoying their university experience to record video diaries or share their experiences on social channels. You can also use blogs, emails, editorials, student ambassadors on The Student Room, and your own social media channels to showcase what’s brilliant about your university.

We are seeing plenty of examples of  our users offering support and advice on why not to drop out, which shows how powerful online conversations can be:

“Don’t drop out!! You can do it <3”

“Dropping out should never be an option. Have you tried getting a tutor?”

2) Find out what your students’ needs and expectations are 

At The Student Room, we look at both quantitative data (polls, research surveys and onsite engagement trends) and qualitative data (user posts and focus groups). This gives us a holistic view of what students are thinking, and why they are thinking it. If you aren’t already signed up for our regular Education Digest emails then you can get free insights from us by subscribing here. You can also commission us to do bespoke youth market research.

3) Be part of the conversation

Students turn to TSR Forums and editorials for help and advice. Be part of that conversation by sponsoring editorials that focus on university life in Lockdown, or using an Official Rep to engage with students when they are seeking advice. You can also explore live student threads in our University Life forum or use your Official Rep to start threads and ask students questions.

Your Official Reps can effectively weigh in on important conversations (such as whether or not to drop out) and help students to consider all the options first. e.g.

“I am sorry to hear you are not enjoying university. I would see if the university offers any student support or well-being services. Most universities offer fantastic support services that tend to not be utilized by students.” – (Liverpool Hope)

You can also get students thinking by sponsoring articles on The Student Room, such as:

“Top 10 tips to boost studying from home”
“How to make university friends during lockdown”

Or, why not try a content partnership? The University of Law is the official partner of our law hub; check out this example where The University of Law’s brand owns highly relevant content.

If you’re considering what kind of content you’d like to sponsor, these forums have all seen great engagement over the past 30 days:

Forums by post

Chat 18,546 increase (+31% YoY)
Advice on everyday issues 8,230 (+ 19% YoY)
University Life 3,942 (+1% YoY)
Friends, family and work 3,471 (+89% YoY)

Forums by page views

Relationships 1,992,876
Chat 472,650
University life 337,519

4) Create online experiences that students can get excited about

Lockdown has created a scarcity mindset. Many of us (including students) feel that our plans, expectations and freedoms are constantly being thwarted. Yet you have the power to shift students’ perspectives from being upset about getting less, to being delighted about being the first generation to enjoy a new experience. This is an opportunity to be innovative, pioneering, and to think about what you can create to build back better.

There’s no avoiding the fact that the social aspect of life at university has taken a hit – clubbing, bars, pubs, the gym, most sports and house parties are all out. But why not let applicants know they will able to attend: online comedy nights, yoga or workout classes, meditation, virtual open mic nights, film screenings, one-man plays, costume competitions, karaoke, quizzes or speed-dating/mating events which aim to help students meet and bond in a virtual space? That’s just a few ideas to bring back the fun, but I’m sure you have a few of your own.

At The Student Room, we offer TSR Talks  – an opportunity for students to have real-time conversations on our platform with high-status people who would normally be out of their reach. This might be world-renowned academics, famous authors, entrepreneurs or comedians from your alumni, or a senior person in politics. By bringing stars to students, you can give them an unforgettable experience in a digital space.

5) Use direct response and lead generation tools

An effective lead generation strategy can supercharge your student recruitment. There’s no reason you can’t aim for much higher application numbers than you did in 2020. It’s a sensible approach in uncertain times since the extra leads will offer protection against any further shocks to the education sector.

 Our powerful lead generation tool, TheUniGuide, has attracted a huge audience of prospective students in the past month alone (5/10/2020- 5/1/2020)***:

  • 437,810 users
  • 457,685 sessions
  • 1,265,058 pageviews
  • 1,458,400 searches by course
  • 164,182 searches by institution

If you need more advice on protecting your 2021 prospects, please get in touch: 0800 999 3222 or email

*Data taken 4 November 2020

** TSR Internal data, Live Report: Forums – PowerBI, 5 October 2020 – 3 November 2020 compared with same days in 2019

*** TSR Internal data, Traffic TheUniGuide & TheUniGuide Searches  – PowerBI, October 2020

Author: Katie Hale