Universities ‘getting it wrong’ on student communication

Students tell Australian survey that institutions struggle to find right balance between offering ‘too much and too little’ information

February 5, 2020
Writing a letter, illustrating op-ed by Harvey J Graff on being a public scholar after retirement
Source: iStock

Universities need to straddle a fine line between not telling their students enough and drowning them in superfluous information, a study suggests.

A survey of 1,000 Australian students has revealed divided views about university communications, with some worried they are being kept in the dark while others complain of information overload.

Just 47 per cent of the respondents agreed that missives from their universities told them what they needed to know. Almost two in five answered: “I read it because I have to, but it could be better.”

Another 14 per cent said they never read information from their universities, mostly because it lacked relevance or “doesn’t offer me anything of value”. Others complained that the official messages were too long, too formal, too frequent or too late.

Mature students and those who had been studying for more than three years were among the least satisfied, with full-time workers and distance students who rarely visited campus among the least likely to read university dispatches.

The research, commissioned by study assistance company Studiosity, suggests that many Australian institutions are on the wrong track in their efforts to personalise the learning experience to an increasingly demanding client base. Sarah Crossing, Studiosity’s director of student experience, said university staff did a “good job” communicating in “enormous ecosystems”.

She said: “Where some frustration might come in is where the students miss out on knowing, because the communication wasn’t there. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard: ‘Why am I only finding out about this resource after I’ve just finished my exam, my semester or – worst-case scenario – my degree?’ There’s this fear around it: did the other students in the course know about these resources?”

Universities were best off providing students with too much rather than taking the chance of leaving them leaving them oblivious to important information, Ms Crossing said. The challenge was doing so in a way that seemed “timely and personal – it’s relevant, it’s respectful and it’s keeping them in the loop”.

Among the respondents who said they never read university messages, most nominated email as the best mode of communication. Some preferred texts or social messaging, but almost none chose phone calls or traditional mail.

Ms Crossing said email was ideal because it put message recipients “in absolute control”, while the ability to search inboxes for old information was also useful in a complex environment such as university. Many students did not mind being contacted on social media, she added, but “it all comes back to relevance. They’ll hear messages all day if it’s something they want to hear about.”


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