Avoiding Kerplunk: How can UK universities use communications to navigate a highly precarious situation?

Avoiding Kerplunk: How can UK universities use communications to navigate a highly precarious situation?

The UK punches above its weight in the global higher education sector, with 28 of the world’s Top 200 universities.

While those universities are fighting coronavirus, they are facing a challenge to survive its impacts.

As complex and large organisations, it can be hard for universities to tell their story well. How do they cut through the noise and persuade their stakeholders to back them now, when they’re needed the most?

Tackling coronavirus

In the face of a crisis, universities are a national asset. Locally they are helping communities to navigate uncertain times while delivering thousands of skilled healthcare professionals into the NHS.

At national level, they’re providing vital scientific support and shaping the policy response. Internationally, universities such as UCL have made life-saving innovation available globally, while Oxford and Imperial are two of the very first to have a potential vaccine in clinical trials. If either succeeds, the UK’s academic and research excellence will have helped save millions and ensured that the global economy can restart, an incalculably valuable national treasure.

A unique and complex system

While universities are national assets, they are complex institutions unlike any other.

In normal times, they compete to deliver core national services like teaching the UK’s 1.9 million domestic students and carrying out advanced research, despite those services being funded by Government below their true cost. Conscious of an ‘Ivory Tower’ image, universities work with communities, charities and businesses so they benefit too.

Those services are ‘subsidised’ by well-paying international students, and for a select few universities, generating improved grants and revenues from the commercialisation of research.

Everyone – researchers, industry, government, students – expects universities to have outstanding facilities and staff, so they invest substantially in improvements and expansion. Like a commercial business, much of that investment is paid for by forecasts of planned growth.

A challenging situation

In ‘Kerplunk’, a game where straws stop marbles from plummeting, you remove straws one by one until the loser takes out the load bearing straw. Coronavirus has pulled out all higher education’s straws at once.

University campuses are closed, so in-person teaching is not possible. Instead, universities have rapidly shifted to online teaching and testing, which doesn’t easily work for courses that require lab time or experimentation. While existing students may adapt out of necessity, a university degree could be a tough sell to the 2020/21 intake who may consider a gap year instead.

Expensive research projects years in the making are indefinitely paused, equipment is unavailable, and experiments need to be started from scratch. Important collaborators and funders, like the NHS, are focusing on essential tasks only. New findings and inventions will take longer to be commercialised or expanded upon, reducing investment and career progression.

With travel restrictions in place and life in Britain deeply disrupted, prospective international students will consider whether the UK is a sensible destination. Businesses may hold off on funding new ideas, focusing on returning to normal instead.

There is a real risk that universities may go bust. If that happens, we face losing key national assets when they’re needed most.

As the former Universities Minister Lord Willets put it, the long-term consequence could be that people who want to learn cannot, that the best and brightest do not come to Britain, and years of work to better understand the world around us and use that knowledge to make life better goes elsewhere, because we lack the funding and universities to make it happen.

And, ultimately, we would be much less prepared for the next global crisis.

So where now?

Like every sector, higher education will need innovation and financial and policy intervention to weather the storm. Despite this, the Government appears to be wavering on a sectoral bail-out, with some departments convinced and others less so.

To attract students – domestic and international – they will need confidence in the continued excellence of the brand. Students expect quality, and the ‘Virtual Campus’ must move through trial and error quickly, or reputations that took decades to build will be lost in weeks. International families considering the investment of a lifetime need confidence the environment is safe and provides an excellent education worth the money.

The backing of those two distinct audiences, Government and potential students, will hold the key to the future of the sector.

Communicating with confidence

To persuade new students and government to back them, universities must identify their concerns, craft a compelling narrative, and be backed by passionate advocates.

Universities have risen to the coronavirus challenge. To be recognised for that, they must ensure their stakeholders – government, businesses, alumni, local communities and staff – discover that via pro-active communications and understand the difference they made. Students and staff who feel that the university looked after them in challenging circumstances can become great advocates, and this is where great internal communications shine.

To convince the next intake of students, universities must tackle their anxieties head on. Research and insight can identify the concerns that are deterring applications, and empower universities to show how they’re overcoming those problems.

The sector’s enormity and complexity can make it challenging to stand out to Government, which is a problem when every university has unique problems. Informing government relations approaches with data, research and intelligence will empower universities to get to the heart of the problem, find the right decision makers, tell a story with cut-through and make the right ask of them.

The coming weeks and months will be vital for the UK’s universities. They have stepped up to save lives globally, and with the right support, can help drive the national and global recovery from coronavirus too.

Visit Madano’s COVID-19 communications hub here for more content on successfully managing communications in these challenging times.

Navigating COVID-19: Communicating through furlough and beyond

Navigating COVID-19: Communicating through furlough and beyond

It is hard to believe that it is only in the last 10 weeks that businesses across the UK (and around the world) have been really wrapping their heads and arms around the organisational and financial crises caused by the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus.

The pace of change is genuinely astonishing. A number of CEOs have said that they’ve made a decade of change in that 10 weeks.

Amongst a raft of UK Government measures to support business announced on 20th March, the Chancellor’s Job Retention Scheme (JRS) has been a buoyancy aid of stupendous proportions. According to recently published ONS statistics, over 20% of the UK workforce (about 8m people) may have taken furlough leave, representing an eyewatering estimated cost of £40bn+. The end date of this programme has been extended from 31st May to the end of June (so far…)

Now pages on-line and in newspapers have been written about the JRS itself, so we don’t intend to go over that ground.

However, we have given some thought to the communications challenges inside organisations as the effects of furlough unfold, Many of these challenges are found in the context of remote working and lockdown, and how they are handled has real potential for shifting public sentiment.

Read our third edition in the Madano Mindset Series by clicking the image below.

Missed the first two editions? See below.

Visit Madano’s COVID-19 communications hub here.

Can Technology Drive Resource Efficiency in the Post-COVID Era?

Can Technology Drive Resource Efficiency in the Post-COVID Era?

Despite the new landscape of the current COVID-19 pandemic, a silver lining has emerged to soothe the anxiety and loss that our society has experienced. The slowdown of our economy has led to benefits for our air quality, with some UK cities seeing a 60% reduction in air pollution. Environmental change will no doubt be a focal point in the coming months.

To maintain this trend, we will have to look to technological solutions to increase consumers’ resource efficiency and reduce their environmental footprint as we return to a ‘new normal’.

The subject of waste is currently being addressed by the Government’s Environment Bill. The Bill was re-tabled after the 2019 General Election and is currently receiving parliamentary scrutiny. A major component of the last Government’s Waste and Resources Strategy is the establishment of a UK Deposit Return Scheme (DRS), which is a novel consumer waste return and recycling system that could be a game-changer for our country’s efforts to create a circular economy and reduce our environmental impact

A DRS is a system that rewards consumers to return and recycle drinks packaging and other containers by placing a monetary deposit upon purchase and returning these monies to the consumer when the packaging is returned. A UK scheme could incentivise consumers to independently return their waste and demonstrate the inherent value of recyclable materials, such as plastic, glass and aluminum, and ensure that waste is recovered and fed through a closed, circular loop to ensure maximum use.

Existing schemes in Europe have transformed recycling rates for example Lithuania (92%), Germany (96%), and Norway (97%) now see recycling rates for packaging above 90%. In contrast, the UK’s kerbside collection system returns and recycles a meagre 45% of our packaging (2018) and this is on the slide.

A recent impact assessment on the effectiveness of a UK DRS, conducted by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, found that our return and recycling rate could skyrocket to 85%. Many of the European schemes noted above were established in the last century. A well-thought out, digitalised UK DRS is an opportunity to establish a green circular economy.

A digital UK DRS requires the full implementation of technologies that already exist or are in the pipeline. For example, advanced reverse vending machines (ARVMs), produced by the likes of Tomra, Envipco and Diebold Nixdorf, are located in supermarkets and shopping centres and provide a point of return for consumers to recycle their packaging. ARVMs collect, scan, count and mechanically prepare recyclable containers for processing, while repaying consumers’ deposits into their debit accounts or banking apps.

Given that each returned container will contain consumer data (purchase, usage, product lifecycle), an integrated DRS can provide a treasure trove of information to store operators, drinks producers, logistics firms and policymakers. A high deposit amount would likely encourage footfall in stores and, in the process, deliver crucial data on consumption and usage to support retail and industry’s extended producer responsibility obligations that are also mandated in the Environment Bill.

Already, supermarkets rely on loyalty apps to map consumer habits and an official DRS app or an existing supermarket app could feed purchase and other data into the scheme’s database and further encourage consumers to recycle through a consumer gamification model.

There are often pitfalls that impact smaller actors in the market when technological innovations are introduced. For example, local shops have noted that ARVMs are too large for their stores and take up valuable space. A UK DRS will certainly have more issues attached to it, such as it cannibalising the revenues acquired by local authorities’ kerbside collection schemes, but it offers a solution to drive recycling rates and enhance data-driven marketing, logistics and environmental audit systems.

Once the DRS is established, we can expect 36,000 reverse vending machines to be gradually rolled out across the UK and many of these will be ARVMs. Given the valuable data produced and ease at which deposits can be refunded to consumers by the latter, deploying ARVMs should be the preferred option for retail, industry and government.

Innovation in waste recycling and reduction should be embraced now, if we are to maximize the environmental gains attained during this uncertain and difficult period and ensure our economy becomes fully circular.

Written by James Watson, Energy and Environment.

Madano’s Energy & Environment practice advises clients across the recycling technology and waste management sector, to find out how our specialists could support your business understand the impacts and opportunities of the Environment Bill please contact – [email protected].

Navigating COVID-19: A revolution in planning virtual consultation and engagement?

Navigating COVID-19: A revolution in planning virtual consultation and engagement?

In the second edition of the Madano Mindset Series: Navigating COVID-19, we explore the potential for the start of a revolution in planning consultation and engagement.

Whilst the absolutely necessary social distancing and lockdowns are forcing us to all work differently and engage online, when we re-think consultation activities we believe there are a number of phases to consider.

To access the full document, simply click the image below.

For more information if you’d like to have a discussion, please contact Senior Account Director, Andrew Turner.

Analysis of 2020 Media Landscape: Coronavirus in the UK

Analysis of 2020 Media Landscape: Coronavirus in the UK

To help our clients better navigate current challenges, our Insights practice have being developing unique insight into the changing communications landscape that COVID-19 has brought. Using our proprietary aimi topic modelling software, we have analysed almost half a million media articles published on the Coronavirus in the UK since the start of the year, to understand what is being discussed.

Our downloadable report below provides a high-level snapshot of this data; showing how different topics have grown or diminished in prominence since the pandemic started, and what may have caused these changes.

Click the image below to access the PDF.


If you would be interested in discussing further how our expert team can help uncover the insights you need right now, please contact us here.

Interested in how this compares to the USA? Click here to view the report.

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